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Tuesday, October 9, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hutch scientist awarded Nobel: With baker's yeast, he helped unravel how cells divide

Seattle Times staff reporters

When Dr. Lee Hartwell first began studying baker's yeast cells, he and other scientists weren't all that confident the research would apply to human cells. Over 30 years, he has proved himself wrong in a big way.

Yesterday, Hartwell, president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Hartwell, also a professor of genetics and medicine at the University of Washington, won the most prestigious award in medicine for building understanding of how cells divide. He did it through pioneering research in the genetics of yeast cells, which are much easier to study than human cells.

"His work has led to an explosion of knowledge. ... As a result, we have a deeper understanding of normal cellular functioning as well as the molecular basis of diseases like cancer and some birth defects, in which cell division goes awry," said Dr. Ruth Kirchstein, acting director of the National Institutes of Health.

"We also have new directions to pursue in developing drugs to target these diseases."

Hartwell, 61, will share the $943,000 prize with Paul Nurse and Timothy Hunt of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London for basic discoveries in cell development. The Karolinska Institute in Stockholm announced the award yesterday and will honor the scientists in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor for whom the award is named.

'Like a thunderbolt' at 3 a.m.

Hartwell has won many awards for his research, but said it was "like a thunderbolt" when a Hutchinson Center staffer called him about 3 a.m. yesterday with the news of his Nobel Prize.

He said the prize is recognition of a whole field of scientists studying yeast cells, which have the same cellular machinery as human cells. And with the prize, "maybe now I have job security," he said to the laughter of a packed news conference of reporters and colleagues at the Hutchinson Center.

Thirty years ago, when he began studying yeast cells, Hartwell and other scientists' doubts about human applications of the research were worrisome, he said. The research tools couldn't approach today's technology, either.

"The most sophisticated technology we often used was a toothpick," Hartwell said.

But Hartwell forged ahead, conducting most of his research at the UW before coming to the Hutchinson Center in 1997. He used genetics to study how cells function, to determine which genes cause cells to divide. That understanding, in turn, is helping researchers understand how cells mutate and perhaps how to prevent or reverse cancerous cell changes.

Hartwell discovered more than 100 genes involved in cell-cycle control, including the gene that controls the first step in the process. He also documented the existence of cell-cycle "checkpoints," which ensure steps in the process have been completed properly before it proceeds. Cancer cells bypass the checkpoints, he found.

"Most exciting is that this insight has led Hartwell to propose practical ways in which yeast might be used to screen for novel anti-cancer drugs," said Dr. Mark Groudine, director of the Hutchinson Center Basic Sciences Division.

Hartwell, however, said much research is left to do. "It's incredibly complicated, and we've only just begun to understand," he said.

'He was always pretty smart'

Intense curiosity about science was something Hartwell had even as a child. He said he went about collecting butterflies, for example, and looking them up in the library. "None of my friends was doing that, and I didn't realize I was weird," he said.

High-school teachers encouraged him, and he excelled.

"He was always pretty smart," said his mother, Marjorie Nichols, who attended yesterday's news conference. "I always thought he'd make something of himself. He was always head of his class."

Hartwell, who grew up in Los Angeles, said his interest flowered at the California Institute of Technology, where he was allowed to do research as an undergraduate. "It was very seductive," he said.

He went on to earn his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received further training from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Asked about the major challenges facing cancer research, Hartwell said one is simply the "tremendous amount of work" needed to achieve the promise of medical science.

In addition, he said, scientists must forge good relationships with members of the public, who participate in scientific trials, and with private industry, which invests in technology.

He said it's important, for example, that laws protecting patient privacy not be so restrictive that they prevent medical research that can lead to cures or prevention of disease.

"We need to find a balance in all of this," said Hartwell.

Hartwell is the second Hutchinson Center scientist to become a Nobel laureate. Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, director emeritus of clinical research, won a joint prize in 1990 for physiology or medicine for his development of bone-marrow transplantation. Thomas is also a UW professor emeritus of medicine and oncology.

The UW has three other Nobel laureates, giving it a total of five. Dr. Hans Dehmelt received the prize in physics for his research in isolating atomic and subatomic particles. Drs. Edmond Fischer and Edwin Krebs received a joint prize in physiology or medicine for discovering proteins that are important in cell-to-cell communication.

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

Warren King can be reached at 206-464-2247 or wking@seattletimes.com.

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