Science

UNC Reseacher Shares Nobel Prize in Medicine

Posted October 8, 2007 5:39 a.m. EDT
Updated October 8, 2007 11:00 a.m. EDT

— U.S. citizens Mario R. Capecchi and Oliver Smithies and Briton Sir Martin J. Evans won the 2007 Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for groundbreaking discoveries that led to a technique for manipulating mouse genes.

The widely used process has helped scientists use mice to study heart disease, diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis and other diseases.

Capecchi, 70, who was born in Italy, is at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Smithies, 82, born in Britain, has been at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1988. Evans is at Cardiff University in England.

They were honored for a technique called gene targeting, which lets scientists inactivate or modify particular genes in mice. That in turn lets them study how those genes affect health and disease.

Smithies, a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, pioneered gene targeting to create mice with specific genetic mutations that can mimic human genetic illnesses. He won the 2001 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, often called the “America’s Nobel," and is a member of the National Institute of Medicine.

He called the award "very gratifying," saying it's "rather enjoyable being recognized at this level" after working on the research for more than 20 years. He said he hopes winning the Nobel Prize will make it easier to secure funding for other work.

Speaking early Monday, Smithies said he had no immediate plans to celebrate the award.

"I'm still feeling sleepy," he said.

“Oliver Smithies’ innovations have revolutionized genetic research and advanced the effective treatment of many diseases, and millions of people worldwide have better and longer lives because of the talent and determination he has brought to his work,” said UNC Chancellor James Moeser in a statement issued by the university. “We are honored to have him as an anchor for the UNC community and grateful that his many contributions have been recognized with a Nobel Prize.”

The first mice with genes manipulated in this way were announced in 1989. More than 10,000 different genes in mice have been studied in this way, the Nobel committee said. That's about half the genes the rodents have.

"Gene targeting has pervaded all fields of biomedicine. Its impact on the understanding of gene function and its benefits to mankind will continue to increase over many years to come," the award citation said.

Capecchi's work has uncovered the roles of genes involved in organ development in mammals, the committee said. Evans has developed strains of gene-altered mice to study cystic fibrosis, and Smithies has created strains to study such conditions as high blood pressure and heart disease.

The medicine prize was the first of the six prestigious awards to be announced this year. The others are chemistry, physics, literature, peace and economics.

The prizes are handed out every year on December 10, the anniversary of award founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

Last year, the Nobel Prize in medicine went to Americans Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello for discovering RNA interference, a process that can silence specific genes.