USIS Washington File - October 10, 2008
-- Honored for discovery of fluorescent protein, advances in
Washington - Four Americans are among the nine recipients of the
2008 Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics, and medicine or
physiology, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the
Karolinska Institute in Stockholm announced during the week of
Americans Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien and Japanese-American
Osamu Shimomura won the chemistry prize for the discovery and
development of a fluorescent protein whose use has revolutionized
The medicine or physiology prize honored French scientists
Fran�oise Barr�-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for the discovery of
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and German scientist Harald zur
Hausen for showing that human papillomavirus causes cervical
Two Japanese scientists, Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa,
and Japanese American Yoichiro Nambu won the physics prize for
discovery of the origin and mechanism of broken symmetry. Their
work is important for elementary particle physics and led to the
discovery of three new families of subatomic particles, according
to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
The discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein
(GFP) has enabled biologists to watch previously invisible
processes inside cells and tissues, such as how proteins move
from one part of a cell to another or how cells grow and divide
in living animals.
"GFP rapidly became an essential piece of the scientific toolbox,
paving the way for an explosion of groundbreaking studies that
significantly advanced our understanding of health and disease,"
said Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of
General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health,
which funded some of this research. "It is impossible to
understate the impact of these investigators' work on scientific
In 1962 Osamu Shimomura and colleagues isolated GFP from the
jellyfish Aequorea victoria and characterized its fluorescent
properties. When exposed to ultraviolet light, GFP glows green.
Shimomura�s discovery remained a biological curiosity until
Martin Chalfie realized that GFP could be used to monitor when
particular genes are turned on or off in a cell as well as the
location of proteins in living animals.
In 1994 Chalfie demonstrated that GFP could be used to tag a
restricted population of nerve cells in the roundworm
Caenorhabditis elegans. The worm has about 300 nerve cells that
are difficult to distinguish from one another. Chalfie
genetically modified worms to produce GFP in only six of these
cells, the ones involved in sensing touch, which glowed green and
were readily visible in live worms.
Roger Tsien expanded the fluorescent-protein color palette by
creating variants that glow in colors such as orange and cherry
red. Scientists now routinely tag cells and proteins with
different colors and are able to monitor multiple biological
processes simultaneously. In 2007, Jeff Lichtman and colleagues
genetically engineered mice to display dozens of colors in
discrete cells in the brain. Animal models such as these
"brainbow" mice will allow scientists to trace brain circuitry -
the connections made between cells in the brain - at unparalleled
levels of detail.
GFP and its variants have proven to be generally nontoxic and
active in a variety of experimental organisms, including
bacteria, yeast, flies, worms, mice and fish. GFP has even
crossed over into science fiction: In the 2003 film Hulk, the
title character�s green skin is allegedly due to the effects of
VIRUSES AND CANCER
Cervical cancer is the second most common form of cancer among
women: about 500,000 are diagnosed annually and nearly 250,000
die from it.
In the 1970s, Harald zur Hausen bucked prevailing thinking by
postulating that a human papillomavirus - not a herpes virus -
caused sexually transmitted cervical cancer.
Zur Hausen and colleagues discovered dozens of strains of human
papillomavirus (HPV) and found two, types 16 and 18, present in
cervical tumors. Subsequent work showed that HPV types 16 and 18
are responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancers.
More than 5 percent of all cancers worldwide are caused by
persistent infection with HPV, according to the Nobel Assembly at
the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Zur Hausen�s work led to the
development of two vaccines currently used to prevent HPV
Eighty percent of deaths from cervical cancer occur in developing
countries, according to doctors Jan Agosti and Sue Goldie,
writing in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007. United
States aid organizations and private companies are helping to
make HPV vaccines accessible in the developing world.
Pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck & Co. is making its vaccine
available at reduced prices in the developing world, according to
a company spokeswoman.
PATH, an international nonprofit organization based in Seattle,
is working with industry and local governments in India, Peru,
Uganda and Vietnam to explore the most effective and acceptable
strategies for vaccinating young girls against HPV. Data from
these pilot programs will be distributed freely to allow
governments to adopt appropriate vaccination policies.
Between 50,000 and 70,000 girls will receive free doses of the
HPV vaccine during the pilot programs, according to Scott Wittet,
director of advocacy and communication for PATH�s cervical cancer
"I see a lot of excitement around the HPV vaccine," Wittet said.
"It could be an opportunity to expand health services to this
Additional information about the Nobel prizes is available from
the Nobel Web site.
More information about HPV vaccine distribution projects is
available from PATH.
Additional information about the "brainbow" mouse can be found in
the November 1, 2007, issue of the journal Nature.