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Monday, 7 October, 2002, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
British scientists share Nobel Prize
Sir John Sulston study of a worm has led to breakthroughs in genetics
Sir John Sulston says he is 'surprised and delighted'
Two British scientists are to share the Nobel prize for medicine.

Sydney Brenner and Sir John Sulston, will share the award with US scientist Robert Horvitz.

They are being recognised for their work into how genes control the division of the body's cells and the development of organs.

This work has helped understanding of the development of many diseases, the Nobel Institute said in its citation.

The discoveries are important for medical research

Nobel Prize jury

Among their discoveries is the genetic mechanism controlling the programmed death of cells at the end of their lives.

The work was carried out on very primitive nematode worms, which are less than 1mm long.

However 40% of its genes are closely related to human ones, so it has helped scientists understand disease processes in humans, shedding light on diseases such as cancer, where programmed cell death does not take place

And in conditions such as Aids, strokes and heart attacks, where cells are lost because of excessive cell death.

News of the award, worth 10m Swedish kroner, or just over $1m, was announced in Stockholm on Monday.


Sydney Brenner, 75, works at the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California, US. He has worked closely with Professor Francis Crick, one of the men who discovered the structure of DNA, the genetic material which contains the blueprint for life.

He also established the existence of messenger RNA - which carries the genetic information from DNA to cells.

The Nobel jury said he broke new ground by linking specific genetic mutations to particular effects on organ development.

Sir John, 60, is the founder of the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, which was established in 1992 by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council to further understanding of the human genome.

Sydney Brenner
Sydney Brenner has made groundbreaking discoveries in genetics
It has also been heavily involved in sequencing the DNA of a human in the Human Genome Project.

Sir John found that particular cells in the developing worm will die through programmed cell death.

He also demonstrated the first mutations of genes involved in that process.

Robert Horvitz, 55, is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He identified the first two "death genes" in the worms and showed that humans have a gene similar to one of them.

Following this work, is it now know that most genes controlling cell death in the worms have counterparts in humans.


Sir John said he was "surprised and delighted" at the honour.

Speaking at the Sanger Institute, he said: "It's something that grew out of work with Sydney Brenner and Bob Horvitz in the 1970s, really as far as my contribution was concerned, but clearly it has been the foundation for a great deal more, and that's extremely delightful.

"I do feel pleased that it's a recognition, too, of work that was done here."

The Nobel jury said the scientists' work had provided a greater understanding of the way cells divide, develop into different body tissues and die when they have served their purpose.

This process starts with the single fertilised egg, and continues through into adulthood.

"The discoveries are important for medical research and have shed new light on the pathogenesis [development] of many diseases," the citation says.

Robert Horvitz
Robert Horvitz identified key genes
Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society, praised the work of John Sulston and Sydney Brenner, who are both Fellows of the Royal Society.

Lord May said the two UK researchers were following in the footsteps of 10 others who had received Nobel prizes over the last 15 years.

"Science is quite simply something we are good at."

New chapter

Both Sir John and Dr Brenner are Medical Research Council scientists.

Professor Sir George Radda, chief executive of the MRC, said: "The discovery of programmed cell death in the development of organs and organisms was a major scientific milestone.

"It opened a new chapter in the understanding of embryological development.

"Since the genes discovered in the nematode have equivalents in humans, this work is expected to have a major impact on the understanding of human disease in the longer term."

Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, who won the Nobel prize last year, said: "This is a fantastic achievement and a great boost to British biomedical science."

The Nobel prize will be formally awarded at a ceremony on 10 December this year.

Pallab Ghosh reports
"It is work that has paved the way for the recent revolution in biology"
See also:

07 Oct 02 | Health
08 Oct 01 | Health
09 Oct 00 | Health
10 Dec 98 | Science/Nature
30 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
30 May 00 | Human genome
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