Since the 19th century, scientists have known that cells multiply by dividing. In recent decades, they've uncovered many of the proteins that initiate this replication process and ensure that one step follows another. Moreover, researchers have uncovered how problems such as cancer can crop up when cell division goes awry.
Three scientists who made advances in these areas will share the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. They are Leland H. Hartwell of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and Paul M. Nurse and R. Timothy Hunt, two researchers at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London.
In the early 1970s, Hartwell identified genetic mutations that disrupt cell division in yeast. That led other researchers, including Nurse and Hunt, to investigate these and other genes and the proteins they encode. In so doing, the three scientists discovered molecular machinery that orchestrates cell proliferation, says molecular biologist Stephen J. Elledge of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
For a cell to replicate normally, it first copies its DNA to make duplicate chromosomes and segregates them. Implementing these or other steps of the so-called cell cycle out of order can result in aberrant chromosomes that may cause a range of maladies from birth defects to tumors. Indeed, the work of the three new winners has spawned several lines of research on cancer, which can arise when cell division remains unchecked.
After discovering that …