Cancer Research UK hails 'groundbreaking' Nobel Prize winners

In collaboration with the Press Association

Two US scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for their 'groundbreaking' discovery of a phenomenon known as RNA interference, or RNAi.

Dr Andrew Fire's and Dr Craig Mello's work has laid the foundation for potential new treatments for a wide range of diseases, including viral infections and cancer.

Through experiments with worms, the two showed that double strands of a molecule called ribonucleic acid, or RNA, the genetic messenger of the cell, are sometimes used to "silence" the activity of genes within a cell.

The Nobel Assembly said that their work opened up "exciting possibilities" in medical technology.

"This year's Nobel Laureates have discovered a fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information," said the Nobel citation.

Dr Julian Downward, head of Cancer Research UK's Signal Transduction Laboratory and an expert on RNAi, said:

"RNAi is a natural and fundamental mechanism for switching off the activity of genes within cells.

"The first hints of the existence of this new 'gene silencing' mechanism emerged from work on the humble petunia in the late 1980s. But it was Fire and Mello's work on a simple nematode worm in 1998 that led to their key insight and subsequent understanding of this new type of gene regulation. "RNAi probably evolved as an ancient anti-viral response. It has huge potential as a groundbreaking research tool, and, excitingly, a route to completely new treatments for disease.

"Its power and specificity could one day be harnessed to turn off the faulty genes that cause cancer, or block the action of viruses such as HIV and hepatitis B. And it is this that is the real challenge ahead.

"Many people in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries are betting that this can be done, but the main stumbling block at present seems to be actually getting RNAi agents into their target cells."