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U Geneticist Capecchi Wins Wolf Prize, Pezcoller-AACR Award for Research in Gene Targeting and “Knockout” Technology

January 24, 2003 — As a small child, Mario R. Capecchi, Ph.D., wandered homeless through Trento, Italy, after the Nazis put his mother in a concentration camp.

In May Capecchi, distinguished professor of human genetics and biology, co-chair of the University of Utah Department of Human Genetics, and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, will return to Trento under happier circumstances. He will receive a cash prize for winning the 2003 Pezcoller Foundation-AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) International Award for Cancer Research.

But his travels will not stop in Italy. After receiving the award in Trento, Capecchi will go to Israel to accept the 2002/03 Wolf Prize in Medicine-Israel’s top honor in medical research. He’ll share the Wolf Prize with two other distinguished researchers–Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina and Ralph R. Brinster of the University of Pennsylvania.

Capecchi and Smithies, working independently, developed techniques for targeted gene mutation in mammals, enabling researchers to create strains of mice with mutations in virtually any gene. Brinster developed a way to modify genes in mice embryo by injecting the eggs with RNA.

The techniques developed by Capecchi, Smithies, and Brinster have given researchers powerful tools for investigating human biology and its misregulation in disease, according to the Wolf Prize jury.

“These methods have enabled the development of models for a wide variety of diseases including hypertension, degenerative neurological diseases and cancer,” the jury said.

In its citation for his work, the Pezcoller Foundation-AACR board of directors said Capecchi has “changed the face of modern biology.”

“The generation of models of human cancer in mice, stemming from your work, has made an enormous impact on cancer research by elucidating the molecular mechanisms involved in tumorigenesis and allowing new therapeutic strategies to be tested in laboratory animals,” the directors said.

Announcement of the awards had Capecchi poring over a map of Northern Italy this week.

During the Second World War, he wandered the country for four years until his mother, who’d been incarcerated by the Nazis, found him in a hospital after the war. Trento was one of the cities Capecchi spent time in during that period. In a sense, his trip to Italy to accept the cash prize from the Pezcoller Foundation will bring him full circle from his childhood. But the award, he hopes, signifies that other scientists have benefited from his research.

“It’s gratifying to have people from around the world recognize our work,” he said. “Hopefully, it means that they’re using the technology we’ve developed and finding it beneficial, too.”

A. Lorris Betz, M.D., Ph.D., University of Utah senior vice president for health sciences and dean of the medical school, said the awards recognize the “fundamental importance” of Capecchi’s discoveries.

“Dr. Capecchi’s work has influenced countless researchers worldwide in the quest to understand disease and may lead, one day, to major breakthroughs in fighting life-threatening disease,” Betz said.

Raymond F. Gesteland, Ph.D., U of U vice president for research and distinguished professor of genetics and biology, called Capecchi “a treasure.”

“These prizes awarded to Mario Capecchi, and others, justly praise the revolutionary technology that has provided a most powerful tool for modeling human disease and for understanding the complexity of our genes,” Gesteland said.

Many scientists would have rejected the possibility that one gene, among 20,000 to 30,000, could be individually targeted in a living animal. But Capecchi’s and others’ success is a tribute to the eternal optimism of scientists, Gesteland said.

The Wolf Prize was established in 1978 by Dr. Ricardo Wolf, a German-born inventor, “for achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among people, irrespective of nationality, race, color, religion, sex or political view.” The prize is awarded each year in four of five scientific fields: agriculture, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, and physics. A prize in the arts also is awarded.

To date, 204 scientists and artists from 20 countries have received Wolf Prizes. Each carries a $100,000 cash award.

The AACR and Pezcoller Foundation established their award in 1997 to honor a scientist who has made “significant contributions to understanding cancer and whose ongoing work holds promise for future outstanding contributions.” The award carries a 75,000 (EURO) cash prize.

In addition to these latest honors, Capecchi has received the 2001 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, the Kyoto Prize in Basic Science, the General Motors Corporation Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Prize for Outstanding Basic Science Contributions to Cancer Research, and, last year, the 2001 National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush.

Capecchi will accept the Pezcoller Foundation-AARC International Award for Cancer Research at a March symposium in Toronto, where he’ll also give a lecture. In May, he’ll travel to Trento to receive the cash prize from the Pezcoller Foundation, then to Israel where he’ll receive the Wolf Prize from the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, in a ceremony scheduled for May 11.