By Malcolm Ritter
An American scientist and two British researchers won the Nobel Prize in medicine today for discoveries about cell division that could open the way to new cancer treatments.
Leland H. Hartwell, 61, director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle; R. Timothy Hunt, 58, of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in Hertfordshire, England; and Paul M. Nurse, 52, of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London will share the $943,000 prize.
The scientists were honored for their study of the cell cycle, the process by which a cell grows and divides. Along the way, the cell must duplicate its chromosomes and distribute them equally to the two new cells.
Cell division happens several billion times every day in the adult human body, and most of the time it goes fine. But when something goes wrong, it can lead to cancer, which is characterized by runaway cell division.
The Nobel winners all discovered genes and proteins that regulate the cell cycle.
The scientists’ work is “a major contribution to our understanding of a basic biological process that has profound implications for cancer research,” said Helen Piwnica-Worms, a cell cycle researcher at Washington University in St. Louis.
For example, scientists have already started testing drugs designed to influence the cell cycle and make cancer cells stop dividing or die. Also, careful study of which regulatory molecules are overactive or underactive in a patient’s tumor could one day help doctors decide on the best treatment.
“This prize is given really for the founding of the field of cell cycle research. These are the seminal discoveries that founded the field,” said Dr. Charles Sherr, a cancer biologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
Hartwell was honored for experiments that began in 1970. Working with baker’s yeast cells because they are relatively simple and easy to manipulate, he discovered more than 100 genes involved in controlling the cell cycle.
“I think it was sort of alone in the woods because I didn’t think it was at all clear – it wasn’t at all clear to me – that yeast cells were related to human cells,” he said.
Nurse followed Hartwell’s approach with a different kind of yeast and, in 1987, isolated from human cells a regulatory gene he had previously found in yeast. The gene lets cells create one of a family of cell-cycle control proteins called cyclin-dependent kinases, or CDKs.
It was “a bit of a eureka moment,” Nurse recalled.
Hunt, in the early 1980s, discovered proteins called cyclins that bind to CDK molecules and regulate their activity. CDKs and cyclins work together to drive the cell through the cell cycle.
Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute will announce the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday, the prizes in chemistry and economics on Wednesday and the peace prize on Friday. Because the nomination period ended Feb. 1, this year’s peace prize is very unlikely to reflect developments since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The date for the literature prize will be revealed two days beforehand, though it is usually a Thursday in October.
The awards are always handed out Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize creator Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896. Nobel, a Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite, established the awards in his will.
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