UMASS MEDICAL SCHOOL RESEARCHER CRAIG MELLO, PHD, RECEIVES BOTH ROSENSTIEL AND GAIRDNER AWARDS

April 7, 2005

WORCESTER, Mass.— University of Massachusetts Medical School researcher Craig C. Mello, PhD, who is the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, has received the 2005 Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Medical Research for his co-discovery of RNA interference (RNAi). His colleague in the breakthrough, Andrew Z. Fire, PhD, of Stanford University School of Medicine, also received the honor. In addition, both Drs. Mello and Fire received the 2005 Gairdner International Award, considered one of the most prestigious in science, for their discovery.

“To be recognized along with my collaborator Andrew Fire with both the Rosenstiel and Gairdner prizes in one year is a great honor,” said Dr. Mello. “Being named for the Rosenstiel Award along with three other C. elegansresearchers underscores the importance of the Medical School’s support of the basic science research underway all across campus; only in an educational institution where collaboration with colleagues and students is so strongly encouraged can such breakthroughs be made. In addition, recognition with the Gairdner Award reiterates, for me, our mission to improve the quality of life through scientific research. I am thrilled to see RNAi applied so broadly in so many labs around the world where it can be used to understand and hopefully, one day, to treat disease.”

Mello and Fire and two additional researchers from Dartmouth Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital were recognized with the Rosenstiel Award “for their pioneering achievements in the discovery of gene silencing by double-stranded RNA” and its implications for prevention or treatment of disorders such as amytrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease; researchers around the globe are applying RNAi technology to such investigations.

The Rosenstiel Award was established by Brandeis University’s Rosenstiel Basic Medical Science Research Center in 1971 to underscore the belief that educational institutions play an important role in encouraging basic science research and its application to medical treatment. Each year, esteemed scientists are selected by the Center, recommended by fellow investigators who have made recent discoveries of particular innovation and significance.

The Rosenstiel Center, established in 1968 through the generosity of Lewis S. Rosenstiel, has placed great emphasis on the application of biomedical research to clinical treatment. The awards are viewed as a means of extending the Center’s support of these values beyond the Brandeis campus community.

Mello and Fire were also awarded the Gairdner International Award for their “discovery of RNA interference which has initiated a revolution in the study and use of RNA in gene silencing.” Nationally sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Government of Canada’s agency for health research, the award recognizes “outstanding contributions by medical scientists worldwide whose work will significantly improve the quality of life.” Established in 1957 by Toronto businessman James Gairdner, the Gairdner Foundation first recognized achievements in medical science in 1959. Since that time, the Gairdner Award has grown to become one of the most prestigious international awards in medical research. According to the Gairdner Foundation, 64 of the 274 prior winners have gone on to win a Nobel Prize.

In their 1998 publication in the journal Nature, Mello and Fire demonstrated that a certain form of ribonucleic acid—or RNA, the cellular material responsible for the transmission of genetic information—had the unanticipated property of silencing 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 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. Just as important, however, has been the finding that RNAi is a normal process of genetic regulation that takes place during development. Thus, this phenomenon has provided not only a powerful research tool for experimentally knocking out the expression of specific genes, but also has opened a completely new and totally unanticipated window on developmental gene regulation.

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 $167 million in research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources. UMMS is the academic partner of UMass Memorial Health Care, the largest health care provider in Central Massachusetts. For more information visit www.umassmed.edu.

Contact: Alison Duffy, 508-856-2000,alison.duffy@umassmed.edu

—30—