UMASS MEDICAL SCHOOL RESEARCHER AND NOBEL LAUREATE CRAIG MELLO, PhD, ELECTED TO PRESTIGIOUS AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES

April 28, 2008

WORCESTER, Mass.—The American Academy of Arts & Sciences today announced that it has elected University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Craig C. Mello, PhD, to its membership, which includes some 200 Nobel laureates, more than 60 Pulitzer Prize winners and national and worldwide leaders drawn from the sciences, the arts and humanities, business, public affairs and the nonprofit sector. The new class of 190 Fellows and 22 Foreign Honorary Members—hailing from 20 states and 15 countries—were announced today and will be inducted into the Academy on October 11 at the Academy’s headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.

Founded in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock and other scholar-patriots, the Academy has elected as members the finest minds and most influential leaders from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the nineteenth, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the twentieth.

“The Medical School congratulates Dr. Mello on his election to the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which has rightly and richly recognized his seminal contributions to advancing our understanding of developmental gene regulation,” said Michael F. Collins, MD, interim chancellor. “Dr. Mello joins an institution whose members are some of the most prominent intellectual and creative forces in this country and throughout the world, and our medical school is privileged that he does so as a colleague and friend.” 

Mello was recognized by the Academy for his work in the discovery of RNA interference, for which he and his colleague Andrew Fire, PhD, were awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 1998, Mello and Fire, who was then at the Carnegie Institution of Washington DC and is now at Stanford University, published research findings in Nature demonstrating that a particular form of ribonucleic acid—RNA, the cellular material responsible for the transmission of genetic information—can silence targeted genes. This process, RNAi offers astounding potential for understanding and manipulating the cellular basis of human disease, and is now the state-of-the-art method by which scientists can “knock down” 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.  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 are using RNAi technology to aid in their development of treatments for disease. 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.

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.  He is also a 1995 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. His work so inspired philanthropists John F. “Jack” Blais and wife Shelley that they contributed a $3 million gift in October 2003 to establish the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine to assist Mello in his future research endeavors.  In addition to being honored with election to the AAAS and the National Academy of Science (Fire in 2004 and Mello in 2005), Mello and Fire’s discovery has garnered numerous honors, including the National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology in 2003. That same year, they were awarded the prestigious Wiley Prize in the Biomedical Sciences.  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. The pair received the 2005 Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Medical Research from Brandeis University and the 2005 Gairdner International Award, which is nationally sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Government of Canada’s agency for health research.

This year’s new AAAS Fellows include, among others, U.S. Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice John Paul Stevens; 2004 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine, Linda Buck, who discovered a molecular understanding of the sense of smell; computer company founders Michael Dell (Dell Computer), and Charles M. Geschke and John E. Warnock (Adobe Systems, Inc.); two-time cabinet secretary and former White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III; astronomer Adam Riess, who contributed to the discovery of dark energy in the universe; Academy Award-winning filmmakers Ethan and Joel Cohen; Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edwards P. Jones; and blues guitarist B.B. King, with whom Mello shared the stage as the 2007 Brown University Commencement speakers. Honorary Foreign Members include Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.

“The Academy honors excellence by electing to membership remarkable men and women who have made preeminent contributions to their fields, and to the world,” said Academy President Emilio Bizzi. “We are pleased to welcome into the Academy these new members to help advance our founders’ goal of ‘cherishing knowledge and shaping the future.’”

An independent policy research center, the Academy undertakes studies of complex and emerging problems. Its diverse membership of scholars and practitioners from many disciplines and professions gives the Academy a unique capacity to conduct a wide range of interdisciplinary, long-term policy research. Current studies focus on science, technology and global security; social policy and American institutions; the humanities and culture; and education.

“For 228 years, the Academy has served the public good by convening leading thinkers and doers from diverse perspectives to examine – and provide practical policy solutions to -- the pressing issues of the day,” added Chief Executive Officer and William T. Golden Chair Leslie Berlowitz. “I am confident that this distinguished class of new members will continue that tradition.”

A list of newly elected Fellows and Honorary Foreign Members with their affiliations is available at www.amacad.org.

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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 $176 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. Visit www.umassmed.edu for additional information.

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Contact: Alison Duffy, Office of Public Affairs and Publications, 508-856-2000, alison.duffy@umassmed.edu