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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Monday, October 8, 2007

Nobel for medicine honors gene targeting in mice


Mario R. Capecchi
(from left), Sir Martin J.
and Oliver Smithies

Three scientists who modified genes in mice using embryonic stem cells have won this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, the Swedish Academy announced this morning.

Mario R. Capecchi
of the University of Utah, Sir Martin J. Evans of Cardiff University and Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina will share the prize for discoveries that made gene targeting possible. Their work led to creation of "knockout mice," or animals whose genes have been modified so scientists can study development, physiology or disease.

Capecchi, born in Verona, Italy, in 1937, earned a doctorate in biophysics at Harvard in 1967 and is now a US citizen. Evans was born in Great Britain in 1941. Smithies was born in Great Britain in 1925 and is now a US citizen.

At Harvard, Capecchi's Ph.D. advisor was James D. Watson, a previous Nobel winner for his co-discovery of the DNA double helix. Capecchi, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, credits Watson for inspiring his development as a scientist and his pursuit of big questions, according to the institute's website.

"He taught me not so much about how to do science but rather provided me with the confidence to tackle any scientific question that fascinated me, regardless of its complexity," Capecchi is quoted on the site. "He also taught me the importance of communicating your science clearly and to pursue important scientific questions."

Capecchi told the journal Nature in 2004 that his relationship with Watson was not always smooth. He recounted a disagreement they had about the results of an experiment. Capecchi was unconvinced by the data and wanted to repeat the experiment while Watson wanted to publish the results. Capecchi then threw away glass plates containing crucial bits of data, ensuring that the results could not be published and prompting Watson to explode in anger. Capecchi recalled: "I came that close to being thrown out of the lab."

Capecchi's childhood was disrupted by World War II in Italy, according to the Nature article and the Hughes website. When he was 4 years old, his mother, a poet, was taken by the Gestapo to a concentration camp, and he lived on the streets, begging and stealing, until they were reunited five years later. After the war, they emigrated to the United States, where Capecchi began school at age 9, knowing no English and unable to read or write.

"It is not clear whether those early childhood experiences contributed to whatever successes I have enjoyed or whether those achievements were attained in spite of those experiences," he said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 07:47 AM
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