8 October 2002
South African born and educated molecular biologist Sydney Brenner and two of his colleagues have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their research into the genetic development of organs and the “programmed death’ or “suicide’ of cells.
Brenner, Sir John Sulston of the UK and Robert Horvitz of the US will share the US$1-million prize for identifying the key genes that regulate the formation of organs and the controlled elimination of old cells in a worm approximately 1mm long – and showing that corresponding genes exist in higher species, including humans.
Their discoveries “are important for medical research and have shed new light on the pathogenesis of many diseases’, the Nobel Foundation said on its web site.
Brenner is the fourth South African born or raised scientist to win a Nobel prize, after CAT scan co-inventor Allan Cormack, Max Theiler for his research on yellow fever, and Aaron Klug for his research on macromolecules.
It was Brenner, widely regarded as a giant in molecular biology, who put the worm or nematode Caenorhabditis elegans on the scientific map, after realising in the 1960s that fundamental questions about cell differentiation and organ development were difficult to tackle in higher animals.
C. elegans, on the other hand, provided the perfect subject for research: transparent and fast-growing, its cell division could be directly observed under the microscope; multicellular yet simpler than mammals, its genetic secrets were relatively accessible and at the same time applicable to more complex species.
Brenner provided the basis for the award-winning research in a 1974 publication in which he broke new ground by demonstrating that specific gene mutations could be chemically induced in the worm’s genome. Different mutations, he showed, could be linked to specific genes and specific effects on the worm’s organ development.
“This combination of genetic analysis and visualisation of cell divisions observed under the microscope initiated the discoveries that are awarded by this year’s Nobel Prize’, the Foundation said.
The knowledge of programmed cell death that Brenner, Sulston and Horvitz arrived at has helped the scientific community to understand how some viruses and bacteria are able to invade our cells, and how abnormal (either excessive or reduced) cell death plays a part in a number of diseases, including Aids, stroke and cancer.
Today, for example, many cancer treatment strategies are based on the stimulation of the body’s cellular “suicide programme’. According to the Foundation, further exploration is called for to “reach a more refined manner to induce cell death in cancer cells’.
Germiston boy, Wits student
Brenner was born in Germiston, South Africa on 13 January 1927, and studied medicine and science at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg before going to Oxford, where he received a D.Phil in chemistry in 1952.
After a brief return to South Africa he returned to England, spending the bulk of his 50-year career in Cambridge, where he directed the Laboratory of Molecular Biology.
He retired in 1992 – but came out of retirement four years later to become director of science at the Molecular Sciences Institute, a private research institute in Berkeley, California. He retired from this job at the end of 2000, and almost immediately took up an offer to become a distinguished research professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where he now lives.
“I don’t want to retire to play golf. Science is one’s hobby and one’s work and one’s pleasure”, Brenner is quoted as saying on the Beyond the Human Genome Project page of the Harvey Mudd College web site.
Brenner is best known for his work in the 1960s, which established the existence of messenger RNA, which transmits information from DNA to proteins. That discovery won him the prestigious Lasker Award in 1971 for basic medical research.
More recently, he has been part of a team studying vertebrate genome evolution using the Japanese puffer fish. Brenner won a second Lasker award in 2000 for work in medical sciences, honouring his achievements over a lifetime. “The first one was for science”, Brenner commented at the time. “The next one was for surviving.”