Animal rights activists might not like it, but over the past few years many of the leaps and bounds we’ve made in understanding human diseases can be traced to one source: genetically-mutated mice. Thanks to the “knockout” technique, mice can be created with one or more specific genes silenced in order to help decipher the genetic causes of human illness; switching off the genes that ensure the production of healthy embryos, for instance, can help scientists study birth defects. Cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure are just some of the more than 500 diseases researchers have replicated in mice using the technique.
Yesterday, the 2007 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Mario R. Capecchi of the University of Utah, Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina, and Sir Martin J. Evans of Cardiff University for just that technique. Creating the first knockout mice in 1989, the three men have been working independently on the intersecting technology since the 80s. When the mouse and human genomes were decoded in 2001, the influx of unidentified genes made the mice’s role even more invaluable.
Nevertheless, it seems a scientific coup and winning the most prestigious award in medicine doesn’t count for much these days. The BBC reports that just one day after the prize announcement, a talk by Sir Martin J. Evans on the ethical issues of stem cell research was cancelled due to “lack of interest.” Hopefully, his cut of the 10 million krona award helps ease the pain.—Abby Seiff
Image of knockout mice courtesy genome.gov