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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Sunday, January 28, 2007

No silent treatment for UMass' first Nobelist

The Nobel scientist with rock star looks got the big brass sound of the UMass-Amherst marching band he asked for at a bash in Worcester Friday night.


Gov. Deval L. Patrick said "You throw a heckuva party" after he strode through the crowd and greeted UMass Medical School's Craig C. Mello, who shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Stanford's Andrew Z. Fire. They discovered RNA interference, a way to silence genes that has revolutionized science and holds hope for saving lives.

As the governor took the hand of Mello's Hungarian-born wife, Edit, who was wearing a dusty-rose and black-lace confection, he told her she didn't have to curtsy.

Mello's family was treated like royalty by the 600 people invited by UMass Medical School to a community dinner celebrating the university's first Nobel. The UMass marching band crowded the more than football-field-size DCU Center ballroom and even got the 6-foot-3 Mello, with long black hair curling over the collar of his gray suit and French blue shirt and tie, to climb a chair and conduct them in a fight song. He obliged, fists pumping and arms waving.

Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray warned Mello: "He may be a brilliant scientist able to silence genes, but he's not able to silence politicians."

Patrick said he didn't understand all the science of RNAi, but he knew what lupus meant for his late mother and what diabetes and Alzheimer's mean to his wife, Diane's, mother.

"A silent gene causes no suffering," he said. "A silent gene means a cure. For that I thank you and honor you."

Guests included 1990 Nobel laureate Dr. Joseph Murray, the transplant pioneer who found a way to fight rejection, and cancer researcher Dr. Judah Folkman.

Mello urged politicians to restore shrinking government funding for research. The secrets of the genome sequence and RNAi have been unlocked, creating more opportunity and more need for funds to exploit them.

"I may not be able to silence politicians, but it's nice to have politicians who will listen," he said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 01:13 PM
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