Americans Andrew Z Fire and Craig C Mello won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine on Monday for discovering a method of controlling the flow of genetic information, an important research tool that scientists hope will lead to new treatments for a range of illnesses, from viruses to cancer.
The Karolinska Institute in Stockholm honored the pair on Monday for their discovery of "RNA interference—gene silencing by double—stranded RNA," a process that has the potential to help researchers eliminate genes that can trigger high blood cholesterol levels and fight other diseases.
RNA interference occurs in plants, animals, and humans. The institute said it is of great importance for the regulation of gene expression, participates in defense against viral infections and keeps jumping genes under control.
RNA interference is already being widely used in basic science as a method to study the function of genes and it may lead to novel therapies in the future.
Fire, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Mello, of Harvard University, were born in 1959 and 1960, respectively. "This year's Nobel laureates have discovered a fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information. Our genome operates by sending instructions for the manufacture of proteins from DNA in the nucleus of the cell to the protein synthesizing machinery in the cytoplasm. These instructions are conveyed by messenger RNA," the institute said.
Fire and Mello published their discovery of a mechanism that can degrade mRNA from a specific gene in 1998.
Last year's medicine prize went to Australians Barry J Marshall and Robin Warren for discovering that bacteria, not stress, causes ulcers.
The physiology or medicine prize, presented by the Nobel committee at the Karolinska institute in Stockholm, kicked off two weeks of award announcements ending with the Nobel Peace Prize on October 13. On Tuesday, the physics prize will be announced, followed by the chemistry prize on Wednesday.
The economics prize will be announced on October 9. No date for the literature prize has been given, but it is likely to be announced on Thursday or on October 12. The Nobel committees do not reveal who has been nominated for the awards, but that does not stop experts and Nobel-watchers from speculating potential winners.
Afred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in his will in the categories of literature, peace, medicine, physics and chemistry. The economics prize is technically not a Nobel but a 1968 creation of Sweden's central bank. Winners receive a cheque of 10 million kronor (euro 1.1 million; US$ 1.4 million), handshakes with Scandinavian royalty, and a banquet on December 10—the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896. All prizes are handed out in Stockholm except for the peace prize, which is presented in Oslo.