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NIH Grantees Win Nobel Prizes

Two long-time NIH grantees have won Nobel Prizes: Dr. Leland H. Hartwell was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of genes that control the cell division cycle; over the past 35 years, NIH has provided him more than $41 million in grant support. And winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was Dr. K. Barry Sharpless, a grantee of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, who was honored for his discovery of "chiral catalysts" — molecules that enable researchers to selectively control chemical reactions. Over the past 26 years, NIGMS has provided him more than $7 million in research grant support.

Hartwell, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and professor of genetics at the University of Washington, also in Seattle, received the award jointly with Dr. Paul M. Nurse and Dr. R. Timothy Hunt, both of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London.

Dr. Leland Hartwell

Hartwell has used a simple, one-celled organism — Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or baker's yeast — as a model system for tackling the difficult problem of how a cell is able to copy its genetic information faithfully and divide in two without transmitting potentially lethal genetic errors. He has discovered over 100 genes involved in cell cycle control, including the gene that controls the first step in the process. Hartwell has also documented the existence of cell cycle checkpoints, which are ordered collections of genes and proteins that ensure that cell cycle events have been completed properly before the cycle continues. In the presence of damaged DNA, for example, the checkpoints stop cell division until the damage is repaired, preventing the altered DNA from causing cell death or abnormal function in subsequent generations of cells.

In 1990, NIGMS gave Hartwell a MERIT award, which provides investigators who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity with long-term, stable support to foster their continued research contributions.

Hartwell has also received funding from the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Research Resources.

Of the 79 American Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine since 1945, 60 either worked at or were funded by NIH before winning the prize. During the same period, 123 scientists worldwide have won that prize, 70 with support from or work experience at NIH prior to receiving the honor.

Sharpless, who is the W.M. Keck professor of chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, received half of this year's chemistry award for his work on "chirally catalyzed oxidation reactions." Sharing the other half of the prize for their work on "chirally catalyzed hydrogenation reactions," are Dr. William S. Knowles of St. Louis (formerly of Monsanto Co.), and Dr. Ryoji Noyori of Nagoya University, Chikusa, Nagoya, Japan.

Dr. K. Barry Sharpless

Nearly all small molecules — either natural or synthetic — come in two "mirror-image" forms, much like a pair of gloves. When chemical reactions occur in living systems, only the "correct" form is made. In contrast, laboratory reactions nearly always produce a potful of both left and right "hands" of a molecule. The active part of most medicines consists of a single hand of a molecule. A mixture that includes the "wrong" hand of a molecule can be ineffective or even harmful to the body.

After more than a decade of trying, in 1980, Sharpless figured out how to force a chemical reaction to go one-handed. The winning combination turned out to be a mixture of two inexpensive commercial chemicals: a relatively simple titanium compound and either the right or left hand of a chemical called tartrate.

In 1990, NIGMS gave Sharpless a MERIT award. Early in his career, Sharpless also received fellowship support from what is now the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

NIGMS has supported 24 of the 29 Nobel laureates in chemistry funded or employed by NIH since 1954.

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