For the discovery of a gene silencing process called RNA interference, Andrew Z. Fire, Ph.D., of Stanford University School of Medicine and Craig C. Mello, Ph.D, of the Massachusetts Medical School have received the 2006 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
The National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health, has supported the prize-winning research with $8.5 million in grants and continues to fund both scientists. Fire became an NIGMS grantee in 1987 and Mello, who also receives funding from NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, became an NIGMS grantee in 1999.
RNAi is a natural process that cells from a wide range of organisms use to turn down, or silence, specific genes. Fire and Mello discovered it unexpectedly when they used a molecular tool called antisense RNA to block the expression of genes that affect development in the C. elegans roundworm. They realized that it actually was the double-stranded RNA molecule produced during the synthesis of antisense RNA that muted gene expression.
Since the initial discovery by Fire and Mello, scientists in labs worldwide have used RNAi to decode the human genome and determine the function of genes. RNAi also holds promise as a medical therapy for human diseases such as cancer and viral infections, and is currently being tested in a number of clinical trials.
“The unanticipated discovery of a basic biological process that can silence genes took the biomedical research community by storm,” said Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D., NIGMS director. “RNAi has clearly demonstrated the fundamental role that basic research plays in advancing our understanding of health.”
More information about RNAi is available on the NIGMS Web site at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/News/Extras/pages/default.aspx#rnai.
More information about NIGMS' support of Nobel Prize winners is available at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Education/pages/factsheet_NIGMSNobelists.aspx.