STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- 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 divide the chromosomes to be distributed precisely 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.
Hartwell said he was sleeping when a call from the Hutchinson cancer center gave him the news.
"It struck like a thunderbolt," he said.
Members of the prize committee stressed that the research to apply knowledge of the cell cycle to cancer was still in its beginnings, but could have broad implications for the disease.
"We are in an early stage; this will take time," said Klas Wiman, professor of cell and tumor biology at the Karolinska Institute. "All cancer cells have something wrong with the cycle and these discoveries have laid the foundation for understanding how the cell cycle affects cancer."
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 molcules to regulate their activity.
CDK and cyclin work together to drive the cell through the cell cycle, said the Nobel Assembly at Stockholm's prestigious Karolinska Institute.
"The CDK molecules can be compared with an engine and the cyclins with a gear box controlling whether the engine wil run in the idling state or drive the cell forward in the cell cycle," the Nobel Assembly said.
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.
"We've only just heard the news, so it's all a bit frantic here," said Dawn Boyall, spokeswoman for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London. "But they (Hunt and Nurse) are both absolutely delighted."
The physics prize 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, followed by banquets laden with pageantry.
The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was established separately in 1968 by the Swedish central bank but is grouped with the other awards To mark the centennial this year, all living laureates have been invited to the ceremonies and related seminars, with some 150 expected in Stockholm and 30 in Oslo, including former South African President Nelson Mandela and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
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 the 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.
On the Net: