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Gene-tracking leads to Nobel Prize.

Gene-tracking leads to Nobel Prize

Major scientific discoveries often begin with someone studying an intriguing phenomenon for its own sake. So it went for Harold E. Varmus and J. Michael Bishop of the University of California, San Francisco, who in the 1970s became interested in an obscure virus that causes tumors in chickens. Working with Dominique Stehelin and Peter Vogt, they discovered that the gene responsible for the Rous sarcoma virus' deadly effect originates as a normal chicken gene that the virus incorporates as it duplicates itself inside the chicken cell.

This week Varmus and Bishop learned they would receive the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for that discovery.

Since the 1976 finding, researchers have uncovered more than 40 other proto-oncogenes--genes that normally mediate cell division and growth but that become potentially dangerous oncogenes under certain circumstances, such as mutation or incorporation by a virus. Oncogenes transform ordinary cells into tumor cells. By studying them, scientists have learned not only about tumor development but also about normal cell function.

"[Varmus and Bishop's] work gave us a new way of thinking about cancer," says molecular biologist David Baltimore of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. "Until they made their discoveries, there was only speculation that cancer had a genetic component. Now there is a certainty." Baltimore shared a Nobel Prize in 1975 for his work in discovering the enzyme reverse transcriptase.

Both Varmus and Bishop have maintained their interest in retroviruses and oncogenes. In research reported in the June CELL, they and colleagues found support for their hypothesis that the proto-oncogene normally controls the shape of a cell as it divides, while the viral oncogene probably disrupts the cell's shape.

Nobels notwithstanding, "things are going on as before," says Leon Levintow, who chairs UCSF's department of microbiology and immunology. The day after learning of the award, Varmus gave his scheduled lecture on gonorrhea to the second-year medical students. Adds Levintow, assessing student response to the announcement, "There was more excitement because the Giants won the pennant."
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Title Annotation:Harold E. Varmus, J. Michael Bishop
Author:McKenzie, A.
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 14, 1989
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