May 13, 2004.
Scientists have long known that human cells die, whether it's the hair follicles that lead to baldness or the retina cells that cause macular degeneration and blindness.
However, it wasn't until a discovery by H. Robert Horvitz that scientists began to take serious interest in the idea that cells are programmed to die, and that the "suicide" genes controlling that process could be used to fight disease.
Horvitz won the 2002 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine for his work.
Tuesday, he shared his research with about 200 people during the Engebretson Symposium on pharmaceutical sciences in Fargo. The North Dakota State University College of Pharmacy hosted the gathering of researchers and scientists, held in conjunction with the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Horvitz, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is only the second Nobel Prize winner to address an NDSU college in the university's
114-year history, said Charles Peterson, dean of the College of Pharmacy.
In their research on cell death, Horvitz and his colleagues decided to study the nematode. The microscopic, parasitic worms are known as agricultural pests and can also cause human diseases such as pinworm and river blindness.
The species Horvitz chose doesn't cause disease, but it does have the same basic physical features as animals. And with only 816 cells in its entire body, it made for a good research subject.
Horvitz found that the nematode not only had genes that trigger cell death, but also genes that help cells survive, he said in an interview Wednesday.
More importantly, those same genes exist in humans, he said. In fact, they're so similar, he implanted one of the human genes in the worm and demonstrated that it could protect against cell death.
Now, Horvitz and other scientists are trying to apply that technology to human diseases caused by cell death, including neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's disease.
It's still an open debate as to whether those diseases are caused by programmed cell death, Horvitz said. But scientists are more certain about others, such as retinal degeneration, he said.
The research also could have applications in fighting cancer. Drug companies are already testing the technology in human trials, Horvitz said.
"I think there's enormous promise," he said. "I'm confident this research will lead to effective ways of fighting diseases."
Melvin Bolton, a doctoral student in plant pathology at NDSU, has been awarded a Fulbright Foreign Scholarship to conduct research at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
Bolton's research focuses on the soybean disease white mold.
His overseas research will run from Sept. 1 to May 31, 2005. ©2004 Forum Communications Co. Fargo, ND 58102. All rights reserved.
End of article.
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