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UMass Medical School Professor Wins Nobel Prize

Dr. Craig Mello and colleague Dr. Andrew Fire of Stanford honored for 1998 discovery of RNAi
UMass WORCESTER, Mass.-The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet today awarded The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2006 to the University of Massachusetts Medical School's Craig C. Mello, PhD, and his colleague Andrew Fire, PhD, of Stanford University, for their discoveries related to RNA interference.

In 1998, Drs. Mello and Fire, then of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, published research findings in Nature that demonstrated that a particular form of ribonucleic acid or RNA-the cellular material responsible for the transmission of genetic information-can silence targeted genes. This RNAi process offers astounding potential for understanding and manipulating the cellular basis of human disease, and RNAi is now the state-of-the-art method by which scientists can "knock out" the expression of specific genes to thus define the biological functions of those genes. Just as important has been the finding that RNAi is a normal process of genetic regulation that takes place during development, opening a new window on developmental gene regulation.

Since Drs. Mello and Fire's seminal publication describing their breakthrough, RNAi has swept through laboratories around the world, changing the way many biomedical researchers work. Outside UMMS laboratories, companies at the forefront of pharmaceutical innovation have purchased licenses to RNAi technology, co-owned by UMMS and the Carnegie Institution, to aid in their development of treatments for disease. Currently, licenses have been issued to companies including Novartis AG, Bristol-Myers Squibb, CytRX Corp., Sirna Therapeutics, Monsanto Co., GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer. At UMMS, researchers are taking full advantage of RNAi technology to speed investigation into a variety of diseases such as diabetes, cancer, ALS and HIV/AIDS.
"This is an incredible day for the University of Massachusetts Medical School. We are so very proud that Dr. Mello is the Medical School's first recipient of this illustrious prize. His enthusiasm for scientific pursuits and innovation is an inspiration to his faculty colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, students and staff alike," said Chancellor and Dean Aaron Lazare.

Drs. Mello and Fire, who were elected to the National Academy of Sciences in May 2005, were co-recipients of the organization's distinguished Award in Molecular Biology in 2003 and the Wiley Prize in the Biomedical Sciences from Rockefeller University that same year. Their RNAi finding was named the 2002 "Breakthrough of the Year" by Science magazine and, remarkably, was also on Science's list of the top 10 scientific advances in 2003.

Also in 2005, the pair received Brandeis University's Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Medical Research, the Canadian government's Gairdner International Award and the Massry Prize. In 2006, they were awarded the prestigious Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize. Most recently, Dr. Mello was named the inaugural recipient of The Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research by Johnson & Johnson.

"On behalf of the University of Massachusetts, I applaud Dr. Mello and Dr. Fire for this unparalleled honor," said University President Jack M. Wilson. "Dr. Mello's research has placed UMass at the epicenter of a revolution in both biomedical research and in prospective therapies. It's a stunning example of the positive impact that UMass can have on humanity and is fully consistent with our mission to be a university of distinction serving our community, our nation and the world."

Dr. Mello, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, holds his BS in biochemistry from Brown University and his PhD in Cellular and Developmental Biology from Harvard University. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center before coming to Worcester to join UMMS in 1995, the year he was also named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. In 2003, Dr. Mello's work so inspired philanthropists John F. "Jack" Blais and wife Shelley that they made a $3 million gift to establish the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine to assist Mello in his future research endeavors.

In 1901, Emil von Behring was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on serum therapy, which opened a new road in medical science and helped save hundreds of thousands of lives. The Prize has subsequently been awarded to a broad field including immunology, genetics, neurobiology, diagnostics and drug development, as mankind continues to struggle against disease and death. Drs. Mello and Fire follow 2005 Nobel Prize recipients Barry J. Marshall, MBBS, and J. Robin Warren, MBBS, who were jointly awarded for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.
The University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of the fastest growing academic health centers in the country, has built a reputation as a world- class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research. The Medical School attracts more than $174 million in research funding annually, 80% of which comes from federal funding sources. Research funding enables UMMS scientists to explore human disease from the molecular level to large-scale clinical trials. Basic and clinical research leads to new approaches for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease.

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Contact: Mark L. Shelton, Associate Vice Chancellor for University Relations, 508-856-2000
E-mail: ummsnews@umassmed.edu

10/2/06

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