UMASS MEDICAL SCHOOL CELL BIOLOGIST WINS WILEY PRIZE

Award comes on the heels of National Academy of Science award for work that has been hailed as "Breakthrough of the Year" in Science magazine

May 2, 2003

WORCESTER, Mass. ¾ Craig C. Mello, PhD, a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and professor of molecular medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, was among a small group of international investigators awarded the prestigious Wiley Prize in the Biomedical Sciences May 2 for their contributions to discoveries of novel mechanisms for regulating gene expression by small interfering RNAs (siRNA).

Mello and colleague Andrew Fire, PhD, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, demonstrated that a certain form of RNA had the unanticipated property of silencing—or interfering with—the expression of a gene whose coding sequence of DNA was similar to that of the RNA they tested. The RNAi mechanism, a natural response of an organism to double-stranded RNA, of which many viruses are comprised, destroys the gene products that a virus needs to replicate itself, essentially halting the progression of the invading viral infection.

The Wiley Prize, which honors a specific contribution or a series of contributions that demonstrate significant leadership and innovation, recognized Mello and Fire; Thomas Tuschl, formerly of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany and now of the Rockefeller University; and David Baulcombe of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England. The award includes a $25,000 grant and the opportunity to present an honorary lecture at Rockefeller University, the venue for the awards ceremony.

"These pioneering researchers were chosen both for their imaginative pursuit of novel research hypotheses and their sophisticated approaches to the characterization of siRNA as a new class of RNA molecule. Their findings have already elucidated fundamental ways in which gene expression is regulated, and one can envision how the application of this knowledge could lead to biomedical applications with therapeutic potential," said Dr. Gunter Blobel, recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize awarded for Physiology or Medicine, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor of Cell Biology at the Rockefeller University. At the invitation of the Wiley Foundation, Professor Blobel served as Chairman of the awards jury for the Wiley Prize. Other jury members included Dr. David J. Anderson, a developmental neurobiologist at the California Institute of Technology, and Dr. Qais Al-Awqati, a physiologist at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Mello and Fire also were presented the prestigious Award in Molecular Biology from the National Academy of Sciences April 28. Their work in RNAi was hailed earlier this year as "an electrifying discovery" and was named the 2002 "Breakthrough of the Year" by Science magazine.

The discovery has had two extraordinary impacts on biological science. One is as a research tool: RNAi is now the state-of-the-art method by which scientists can knock down the expression of specific genes in cells, to thus define the biological functions of those genes. But just as important has been the finding that RNA interference is a normal process of genetic regulation that takes place during development. Thus, RNAi has provided not only a powerful research tool for experimentally knocking out the expression of specific genes, but has opened a completely new and totally unanticipated window on developmental gene regulation.

Mello, who holds degrees from Brown University (BS in Biochemistry) and Harvard University (PhD in Cellular and Developmental Biology), was a postdoctoral fellow at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center before coming to UMMS in 1994. In 2000 he was named an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), one of the most prestigious and sought-after scientific awards in the world. HHMI is a $13 billion medical research organization that employs more than 350 eminent researchers at 72 medical schools, universities and research institutes worldwide. Mello, whose research into the genetics of the worm C. elegans provides important insights into human development and cancer, is the third HHMI researcher at UMMS, joining Michael R. Green, MD, PhD, the Lambi and Sarah Adams Chair in Genetic Research and professor of molecular medicine, biochemistry & molecular pharmacology and surgery and director of the Program in Gene Function & Expression; and Roger J. Davis, PhD, the H. Arthur Smith Chair in Cancer Research and professor of molecular medicine and biochemistry & molecular pharmacology.

"Craig Mello is a brilliant example of the UMass Medical School researcher—innovative and passionate about his work," said UMMS Chancellor and Dean Aaron Lazare. "We are thrilled to see him receive such distinguished recognition."

In addition to Mello’s work in establishing RNAi as a field of study, several other scientists at UMMS are also working in RNAi, particularly Phillip D. Zamore, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, whose research is focused on identifying the biochemical machinery that brings about RNAi. Specifically, his team is using extracts from fly embryos and human cells, purified in the test tube, in hopes of understanding the phenomena’s components at the molecular level― research that may eventually form the basis for a new class of drugs to treat human disease, including viral infections and some genetic disorders. Mario Stevenson, PhD, the David J. Freelander Professor of AIDS Research and professor of molecular medicine and molecular genetics & microbiology, is examining the use of one form of RNAi, small interfering or siRNA, to block HIV infection, while Tariq M. Rana, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, is studying RNAi in mammalian cells.

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 $143 million in research funding annually, 80 percent 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.

Contact: Alison Duffy, 508-856-2000