Unlike many other yearly awards, Nobel Prizes - be they in physics, chemistry, peace, medicine, economics, or literature - are awarded to persons or institutions for many years of outstanding contribution to their fields. The 2007 Nobel Prize in Medicine was just awarded to three distinguished researchers who have devoted their professional lives to the study of genetics -- for the purpose of finding therapies and cures for hundreds of disorders and diseases.
© The Nobel Committee for Physiology Illustration: Annika Röhl
The 2007 Nobel winners, Mario R. Capecchi, 70, of the University of Utah; Oliver Smithies, 82, of the University of North Carolina; and Sir Martin J. Evans, 66, of Cardiff University in Wales - worked independently, but their research overlapped greatly. Many other geneticists contributed to the state of the art, but the discoveries of Capecchi, Smithies, and Evans are considered watershed.
In layman's terms, what exactly did these Nobel Prize winners do?
1. Targeted genes responsible for specific diseases and disorders.
By isolating individual genes in mice and removing them (knockout genes) the scientists created specific disorders or diseases in the mice they studied, thereby demonstrating the gene relationship to the disease or disorder it caused. Mice were used in the experiments, as they have 95% of the genes common to all mammals, including humans.
2. Re-combined diseased genes with normal genes to treat or eliminate specific disease.
Once a disease gene was identified, the Nobel winners found that with homologous recombination (i.e., combining a healthy gene with the unhealthy gene from a similar source), a new gene could be re-introduced into the mouse, or other mammal, whereby the disease would improve or be eliminated.
3. Established that healthy embryonic stem cells (ES) are the only genes that can positively affect the inheritance factor in disease.
Inherited predispositions and the diseases themselves can be altered in the early stages of fetal development. The only DNA that can be used to selectively modify out the disease must be obtained from healthy embryonic stem cells.
The findings of Mssrs.Capecchi, Smithies, and Evans have contributed greatly to the scientific findings of other geneticists, who have been able to create therapies, cures, and disease-free lines of laboratory mice.
(If I water these accomplishments down any more, I may end up winning the Nobel Prize for Fiction!)
From The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2007 press release