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Dr. Leland H. Hartwell is awarded the Nobel Prize for "Medicine or Physiology" on December 10, 2001.
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On December 10, 2001, Dr. Leland H. Hartwell (b. 1939), president and
director of Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is awarded
the Nobel Prize in the category "Physiology or Medicine" at a ceremony
in Stockholm, Sweden. He shares the award with Tim Hunt (b. 1943) and
Sir Paul Nurse (b. 1949), both of Great Britain. The prize is awarded
for discoveries related to the "cell-cycle," the process by which a
cell grows and eventually divides to form two new cells. Hartwell
conducted his award-winning research in 1971 while teaching genetics at
the University of Washington.
Early Life and
Leland Hartwell was born on October 30, 1939, in Los
Angeles, California, son of Ernest Hartwell, a sign maker, and Marjorie
Hartwell (later Nichols). He showed an early interest in collecting
bugs, spiders, snakes, and other small life forms, but between the age
and 17 was "preoccupied with sports, girls and cars" ("Autobiogrpahy").
After transferring to a new high school, he was fortunate enough to find
teachers who recognized and nurtured his talent in science
No one in Hartwell's family had ever attended college, and
he started out cautiously, taking courses in math, chemistry, and physics at
Glendale Junior College, hoping to become an engineer. After just one year, encouraged by a supportive
professor, he applied for and was admitted to the prestigious California
Institute of Technology, starting as a sophomore there in 1958. He received his Bachelor of
Science degree in 1961, then went on to earn a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology in 1964, working under the mentorship of biologist Boris Magasanik (b. 1919).
After leaving MIT, Hartwell went to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies to do
postdoctoral work in 1964 and 1965, working with a noted virologist and Nobel
Laureate, Dr. Renato Dulbecco (1914-2012). He then moved to the
University of Washington, where he became a teacher of genetics in 1968 and a professor in 1973. It
was while he was at the university that he conducted the original research that led to the
The Lives of a Cell
The double-helix structure of DNA, which carries each
organism's genetic code, was worked out in 1953 by Francis Crick
(1916-2004) and James D. Watson (b. 1928), based on work by Rosalind
Franklin (1920-1958) and Maurice Wilkens (1916-2004). This breakthrough would
energize decades of genetic research, and Crick, Watson, and Wilkins
were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.
Hartwell was just one of many scientists to build on the
work on DNA, but he became one of the most successful. His basic
interest was in how cells grow and divide, and he concentrated his research on
working out the details of this process at the molecular level.
Hartwell determined that mammalian cells were not the best
candidates for his studies, and he instead selected Saccharomyces
cerevisiae, the yeast cell that is used both for making bread and brewing
beer. In 1971, while teaching genetics and doing research at the University of Washington,
he discovered what he called "cell-division-cycle" genes. His
primary finding, and the one that earned the Nobel, was that the process of
cell division includes pauses (called "checkpoints"). Special checkpoint genes use the pauses to determine
whether a cell is dividing normally and, if not, attempt genetic repair,
allowing normal cell division to be completed. Hartwell's research gave
important insights into how cancer, which arises from abnormal, uncontrolled
cell growth, develops and progresses.
In 1996 Hartwell
joined Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer
Research Center and in 1997 became its president and director. In September,
2009, he announced that he was moving to Arizona State University's Global
Institute of Sustainability. There he would take on multiple roles, including occupying
the Virginia Piper Chair and serving as
chief scientist of personalized medicine at the university's Center for
Sustainable Health, Biodesign Institute.
In His Own Words
In the autobiographical note he prepared for the Nobel
Institute, Hartwell reflected on his life in science:
"Looking back over my life, I feel in some sense
destined because of my native interest in understanding things at a fundamental
level. And I also feel extremely fortunate for a great number of people who
intervened or mentored me on my path. I sought a rigorous approach to
mysterious problems and found people at each step that pointed the way. I feel
very fortunate to have become a biologist at a time when curiosity was
paramount and to have been trained by people who had high standards" ("Autobiography").
Hartwell was inducted into the National Academy of Science
in 1987. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he has been honored with the Alfred P.
Sloan Award for cancer research (1991), the Gairdner Foundation International
Award (1992), the Genetics Society of America Medal (1994), and the Albert
Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1998). He remains (2012) at Arizona State
University, where he concentrates his research on developing methods for putting
to practical use in medical treatment the genetic discoveries made by him and
"Cell Cycle," Biology Online website accessed
December 29, 2012 (http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Cell_cycle);
Leland H. Hartwell, "Autobiography," Nobel Prize website accessed December
29, 2012 (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2001/hartwell.html);
"Leland H. Hartwell," Notable Names Database website accessed December
29, 2012 (http://www.nndb.com/people/645/000135240/);
Warren King and Eric Sorensen, "Hutch Scientist Awarded Nobel -- With Baker's Yeast, He Helped Unravel How
Cells Divide," The Seattle Times,
October 9, 2001, p. A-1.
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.
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