Trio shares Nobel Prize in medicine for 'designer mice'

ByABC News
October 8, 2007, 10:34 PM

— -- The 2007 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology was awarded Monday to three scientists whose work now enables researchers worldwide to create "designer mice" that have transformed the study of human disease.

Although the men worked separately, the techniques they pioneered have enabled scientists to create genetically engineered mice and use them as a living biological workbench to tinker with individual genes, identify their functions and test experimental therapies.

"It's hard to imagine a more appropriate or more wonderful choice than this," says Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Martin Evans of Cardiff University in Wales; Mario Capecchi of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Utah; and Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina were recognized for discoveries used in "virtually all areas of biomedicine," the Nobel Foundation says.

What gives the work its power, Lander says, is how useful it is. "You want to study a mutation that causes Alzheimer's disease?" he asks. "Make a mouse that has that mutation. You want to study the genetics of diabetes? Make mice with genes that may play a role. Want to study a gene whose function you don't know? Make a mouse in which the gene gets knocked out, see what happens."

For Capecchi, who spent his early childhood on the run from pro-Nazi fascists in Italy while his mother was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp, the award caps a remarkable journey. Released from Dachau in 1945, his mother found the 9-year-old naked and filthy in a village hospital.

After emigrating to the USA and graduating from Antioch College, he went to work for James Watkins at Harvard, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, the biochemical backbone of all life.

At Harvard and later in Utah, he learned how to change genes inside mouse cells. Smithies had gotten there first but credits Capecchi with making the process more reliable and efficient.

For his part, Evans discovered embryonic stem cells the master cells in mouse embryos that build the whole animal and how to alter them so that desired genetic changes would be passed from one generation to the next.