Craig C. Mello

Craig C. Mello

Doctor of Science

It is the rarest of discoveries that can profoundly change how scientists view their fields and forever alter they way in which they approach their work. Watson and Crick's unveiling of the structure of DNA was such a feat; now, more than a half century later, the work of Mello and Fire is being viewed in the same light.

Craig Mello, Blais University Professor in Molecular Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, along with his colleague, Andrew Fire of Stanford University, won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries related to RNA interference. The award followed by only eight years the publication of their groundbreaking paper in Nature summarizing their seminal work.

As a single-stranded molecule, RNA, or ribonucleic acid, has long been known to act as a messenger in the cell, carrying the genetic codes contained in genes to the cellular machinery that translates them into proteins. In the 1990s, Mello began research that would astound the life sciences community by showing that RNA performs another, equally critical function. Through a series of elegant experiments, he and Fire found that double-stranded RNA can silence genes by preventing their codes from being read. They dubbed this phenomenon RNA interference, or RNAi.

Like a light being turned on in a darkened room, the discovery of RNAi exposed a vitally important mechanism at work within the cells of virtually every organisms, a mechanism that Mello now believes plays a pivotal role in evolution. Since the best way to learn what a gene does is by turning it off and seeing what doesn't happen, the finding also identified an amazingly effective new method for learning the functions of genes, one that is rapidly becoming a fundamental tool for molecular biologists around the world.

The Mello/Fire discovery also pointed the way toward a new era in drug development. Already, dozens of companies have licensed the U.S. patent awarded to RNAi, and many others are springing up to use the technology to develop therapeutic medications for a wide range of illnesses. Among them is RXi Pharmaceuticals, a company founded by Mello.

The scientific community was quick to laud the work of Mello and Fire. In addition to earning the Nobel Prize, the discovery was named Science magazine's 2002 "Breakthrough of the Year." The researchers received the National Academy of Sciences' Award in Molecular Biology, the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences from Rockefeller University, and the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize from the Federal Republic of Germany, among many other honors. Both Mello and Fire were inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and in 2006, Mello was named the inaugural recipient of the Johnson & Johnson Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research.

Mello received a BS in biochemistry from Brown University and a PhD in cellular and molecular biology from Harvard University. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center before joining UMass in 1994. He has also been a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences.

For his pioneering discoveries that have transformed our understanding of life itself, helped accelerate the pace of progress in molecular biology and genetics, and opened the door to a new industry based on gene-based therapeutics, WPI, as part of the formal opening of the Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center, is proud to confer upon Nobel Laureate Craig Mello the degree of Doctor of Science, Honoris Causa.

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