NIH Grantee Leland Hartwell Wins Nobel Prize for Breakthroughs in Understanding the Cell Cycle

NIH Grantee Leland Hartwell Wins Nobel Prize for Breakthroughs in Understanding the Cell Cycle
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Dr. Leland H. Hartwell, a long-time grantee of the National Institutes of Health, was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine today for his discovery of genes that control the cell division cycle. Over the past 35 years, NIH has provided more than $41 million in grant support to Dr. Hartwell.

Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, acting director of NIH, said, "I am thrilled that Dr. Hartwell has received this high honor. He is a fine human being and an exceptional scientist who is dedicated to training new generations of researchers. His work has led to an explosion of knowledge on how cells precisely manage a process that is crucial to life. As a result, we have a deeper understanding of normal cellular function as well as the molecular basis of diseases, like cancer and some birth defects, in which cell division goes awry. We also have new directions to pursue in developing drugs to target these diseases."

The Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, announced the prizes this morning. Dr. Hartwell, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and professor of genetics at the University of Washington, also in Seattle, received the award jointly with Dr. Paul M. Nurse and Dr. R. Timothy Hunt, both of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London.

Dr. Hartwell has used a simple, one-celled organism-- Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or baker's yeast--as a model system for tackling the difficult problem of how a cell is able to copy its genetic information faithfully and divide in two without transmitting potentially lethal genetic errors. He has discovered over 100 genes involved in cell cycle control, including the gene that controls the first step in the process. Dr. Hartwell has also documented the existence of cell cycle checkpoints, which are ordered collections of genes and proteins that ensure that cell cycle events have been completed properly before the cycle continues. In the presence of damaged DNA, for example, the checkpoints stop cell division until the damage is repaired, preventing the altered DNA from causing cell death or abnormal function in subsequent generations of cells.

"Dr. Hartwell's extraordinary creativity and imagination led to his groundbreaking advances in understanding the cell cycle. His research proved that it was possible to use the tools of genetics to understand the cell cycle and the way defects in this cycle result in disease. Dr. Hartwell's work also shows how basic research using model organisms like yeast can pay off by providing insights that influence the understanding and treatment of human diseases," said Dr. Marvin Cassman, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which has funded Dr. Hartwell's research since 1966. In 1990, NIGMS gave Dr. Hartwell 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.

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. Hartwell has also received funding from two other NIH components, the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Research Resources. According to Dr. Alan Rabson, acting director of NCI, "Dr. Hartwell's research has revealed new aspects of cancer cell biology and new molecular targets for cancer treatment. In addition, Dr. Hartwell is an outstanding leader of one of the nation's finest NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center."

Dr. Hartwell's many other awards include the 1998 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, the 1991 Alfred B. Sloan, Jr. Prize given by the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, and election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1987. He received his Ph.D. in 1964 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and did postdoctoral research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies with 1975 Nobel laureate Dr. Renato Dulbecco.

Of the 79 American Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine since 1945, 60 either worked at or were funded by NIH before winning the prize. During the same period, 123 scientists worldwide have won that prize, 70 with support from or work experience at NIH prior to receiving the honor.


For comments on Dr. Hartwell's NIH-supported research, call Marc Stern in the NIH News Media Branch at (301) 496-2535 to arrange an interview with NIH acting director Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein or call the NIGMS Office of Communications and Public Liaison at (301) 496-7301 to arrange an interview with NIGMS director Dr. Marvin Cassman.