An American and two British researchers won the 2001 Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for basic discoveries in cell development that are expected to lead to new cancer treatments.
Leland H. Hartwell, 61, director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, R. Timothy Hunt, 58, of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in Hertfordshire, England, and Paul M. Nurse, 52, of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London will share the $943,000 award.
The scientists were honored for discovering key regulators of the cell cycle, which is the process cells go through to divide. Cells must grow, duplicate their chromosomes -- the tiny DNA segments that contain genes -- and distribute these chromosomes to the cells that result from the cell division.
The discoveries are important to understanding how chromosome defects arise in cancer cells, the Nobel committee said. These alterations probably arise from defects in the control of the cell cycle, the committee said.
Research into the cell cycle field is about to be applied to diagnosing tumors and may eventually open new doors for therapy, the committee said.
Members of the prize committee stressed the application of the research was still in the early stages, but could have implications for all kinds of cancer.
"All cancer cells have something wrong with the cycle and these discoveries have laid the foundation for understanding how the cell cycle affects cancer," said Klas Wiman, a professor at Karolinska Institute who was on the awards committee.
Hartwell studied yeast to identify more than 100 genes involved in controlling the cell cycle, starting around 1970. Nurse isolated the human version of a key cell cycle gene, called CDK1, in 1987. He also shed light on how regulating proteins called cyclin-dependent kinases, or CDKs, work.
Hunt, in the early 1980s, discovered "cyclins," proteins that bind to CDK molecules to regulate their activity.
CDK and cyclin work together to drive the cell through the cell cycle, said the Nobel Assembly at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute.
"The CDK molecules can be compared with an engine and the cyclins with a gear box controlling whether the engine will run in the idling state or drive the cell forward in the cell cycle," the Nobel Assembly said.
In London, Hunt told a news conference that "the thing that Paul (Nurse) discovered didn't work by itself. It needed this other thing (cyclin) to cozy up to it."
Their discoveries provided a "theretical understanding, a cultural shift that helps understand cancer better," Hunt said.
Nurse, director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, said he is going to treat himself to a motorcycle. He also told journalists that after learning he won the prize, he was "not too coherent at the moment."
The winners were selected from nominations received from professors, past laureates and other specialists from around the world, but the final choice for the prize in physiology or medicine was made in a morning vote Monday by the 50 professors who make up the Nobel Assembly.
Hans Joernvall, secretary of the Nobel Assembly who notifies the winners, said he reached Hunt by telephone but had to leave messages for Nurse and was unable to locate Hartwell. The committee decided to release the news anyway and all winners were informed within hours.
Hartwell told The Associated Press in Seattle that he was sleeping when a staffer from his institute called to wake him up.
"It struck like a thunderbolt," he said, adding that he has known he might be considered for the Nobel but had no idea when. "You never know what year. It comes as a complete shock."
The Nobel prize in physics is to be announced Tuesday, the prizes in chemistry and economics on Wednesday, and the peace prize on Friday. Because the nomination period ended Feb. 1, this year's peace prize is very unlikely to reflect developments since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
In keeping with tradition, the date for the literature prize will be revealed only two days beforehand, although it is usually a Thursday in October.
The awards are always handed out Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize creator Alfred Nobel's death in 1896. The laureates arrive to receive gold medals, diplomas and checks in the presence of the king of each country.
The medicine prize, which was first received by Emil Adolf von Behring of Germany for his discovery of a diphtheria vaccination, was to be given to "the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine," according to Nobel's will.
Last year's winners were Arvid Carlsson of Sweden and Americans Paul Greengard and Eric Kandel for research on how brain cells transmit signals to each other, thus increasing understanding on how the brain functions and how neurological and psychiatric disorders may be better treated.
Nobel, a Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite, established the awards in his will.
By Kim Gamel
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