NIH Grantee H. Robert Horvitz Wins Nobel Prize for Deciphering Cell Death Genes

Discovery Sheds Light on AIDS, Neurodegenerative Diseases, Stroke, and Cancer
Release Date:
Alisa Machalek, NIGMS
(301) 496-7301

H. Robert Horvitz, Ph.D., a long-time grantee of the National Institutes of Health, is a winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He is cited for characterizing key genes controlling cell death, which is essential for embryonic development and, when improperly controlled, is a hallmark of numerous diseases.

NIH has provided more than $7 million to support Dr. Horvitz's research over the past 25 years.

"I am delighted that the Nobel Assembly chose to recognize this groundbreaking work," said Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., NIH Director. "It is a clear example of how basic research lays the foundation for improved understanding of human health. One of the key roles of the NIH is to support such promising areas of basic biomedical research."

The Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, announced the award winners this morning. Dr. Horvitz, professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shares the prize with Sydney Brenner, D. Phil., of The Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, CA, and John E. Sulston, Ph.D., of The Sanger Centre in Cambridge, UK. The three, who worked independently, are recognized "for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death."

"Dr. Horvitz's work helps answer one of the most significant questions in all of biology--how a fertilized egg develops into an adult. His research opened up a new field of inquiry into cell death that has shed light on how organs form and how a number of diseases develop," said Judith H. Greenberg, Ph.D., acting director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which has funded Dr. Horvitz's research since 1978. In 1991, NIGMS gave Dr. Horvitz a MERIT award, which provides investigators who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity with long-term, stable support to foster their continued research contributions.

Like a sculptor shaving off bits of marble to shape a statue, organisms use cell death to shape developing organs, including the brain. Dr. Horvitz identified the first two "cell death" genes by studying a simple model system--the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. He also proved that humans have cell death genes similar to those he identified in the worm.

Cell death is precisely choreographed during development. But when this tight control is lost, the road is paved for disease. Excessive cell death is associated with diseases like AIDS, stroke, and Parkinson's. On the other hand, insufficient cell death--the survival of crippled cells that should die--can lead to cancer and autoimmune diseases.

NIGMS funds research and research training in the basic biomedical sciences, including genetics and cell and molecular biology. This support enables scientists at universities, medical schools, and research institutions throughout the country to expand knowledge about the fundamental life processes that underlie human health and disease.

Dr. Horvitz, a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, has also been awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience, and the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation's, Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Prize. Dr. Horvitz received his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University in 1974.

Of the 80 American Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine since 1945, 61 either worked at or were funded by NIH before winning the prize. Of these, 30 received support from NIGMS. Although the bulk of Dr. Horvitz's NIH funding comes from NIGMS, he also received support from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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For comments on Dr. Horvitz's NIGMS-supported research, call Alisa Machalek in the NIGMS Office of Communications and Public Liaison at (301) 496-7301 to arrange an interview with an NIGMS geneticist.