3QD Interviews Craig Mello, Medicine Nobel Laureate

Harvey David Preisler died of cancer six years ago. He was a well-known scientist and cancer researcher himself. He was also my sister Azra's husband, and she wrote this about him here at 3QD:

Screenhunter_1_9Harvey grew up in Brooklyn and obtained his medical degree from the University of Rochester. He trained in Medicine at New York Hospitals, Cornell Medical Center, and in Medical Oncology at the National Cancer Institute. At the time of his death, he was the Director of the Cancer Institute at Rush University in Chicago and the Principal Investigator of a ten million dollar grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study and treat acute myeloid leukemias (AML), in addition to several other large grants which funded his research laboratory with approximately 25 scientists entirely devoted to basic and molecular research. He published extensively including more than 350 full-length papers in peer reviewed journals, 50 books and/or book chapters and approximately 400 abstracts.

A year after his death, my sister started an annual lecture in Harvey's memory which is usually delivered by a distinguished scientist or other intellectual. The first Harvey Preisler Memorial Lecture was given by Dr. Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the HIV virus as the infectious agent responsible for AIDS. This year, the lecture featured the most-recent winner of the Nobel prize in Medicine, Dr. Craig Mello, codiscoverer of RNAi.

Screenhunter_27_jun_30_1321Dr. Mello grew up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. and graduated from Fairfax Highschool there. He went to Brown for college and later got a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He then also worked as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. James Priess at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washinton. Dr. Mello now runs his own lab at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester. This is from Wikipedia:

In 2006, Mello and Fire received the Nobel Prize for work that began in 1998, when Mello and Fire along with their colleagues (SiQun Xu, Mary Montgomery, Stephen Kostas, Sam Driver) published a paper in the journal Nature detailing how tiny snippets of RNA fool the cell into destroying the gene's messenger RNA (mRNA) before it can produce a protein – effectively shutting specific genes down.

In the annual Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scientific Meeting held on November 13, 2006 in Ashburn, Virginia, Dr. Mello recounted the phone call that he received announcing that he had won the prize. He recalls that it was shortly after 4:30 am and he had just finished checking on his daughter, and returned to his bedroom. The phone rang (or rather the green light was blinking) and his wife told him not to answer, as it was a crank call. Upon questioning his wife, she revealed that it had rung while he was out of the room and someone was playing a bad joke on them by saying that he had won the Nobel prize. When he told her that they were actually announcing the Nobel prize winners on this very day, he said “her jaw dropped.” He answered the phone, and the voice on the other end told him to get dressed, and that in half an hour his life was about to change.

The Nobel citation, issued by Sweden's Karolinska Institute, said: “This year's Nobel Laureates have discovered a fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information.”

[Photo shows Dr. Mello with Azra and Harvey's daughter, Sheherzad Preisler.]

Just before his lecture, I had a chance to sit down in his office with Dr. Mello and speak to him about his work. On behalf of 3QD and our readers, I would like to thank Dr. Mello for making the time to explain his discovery in some detail. Asad Raza videographed our conversation: