Professor Thomas Tuschl from Rockefeller University in New York, USA, was honored in Berlin, Germany with the Max-Delbruck-Medal.
The German chemist developed a technique which enables researchers to literally "turn off" specific genes. This technology is called RNA-Interference (RNAi) and is now used in research laboratories all over the world to silence genes in cell culture to elucidate their function.
Researchers also hope to employ RNAi- technology to silence disease genes in order to treat eye diseases, neurological diseases, hereditary diseases, and cancer in the future. Professor Nikolaus Rajewsky from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch, Germany held the laudatory address.
Ribonucleid acid (RNA), the chemical relative of DNA, carries the genetic information which enables the cell machinery to produce proteins, the building blocks of life. However, when RNA is double- stranded, cells act to cut it into small pieces which, in turn, stop proteins from being made. This process occurs in plants, animals, and humans to protect them from viral infections. It also serves to regulate genes.
While a postdoctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA, Thomas Tuschl laid the groundwork that led to his later discovery at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany. He could show, that synthetic double-stranded RNA is also cut into small pieces when inserted into cells. These small pieces, made up of 20 to 23 nucleotides, interfere with the messenger RNA and, thus, silence genes.
In 2001, Tuschl, then working at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, was able to show that RNAi also exists in human cells and that it can also specifically silence human genes.
Thomas Tuschl was born on June 1, 1966 in Altdorf near Nuerenberg, Germany. He studied chemistry in Regensburg and earned his PhD in 1995 at the Max-Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen. During the following four years, he was a postdoctoral student in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA, and also worked at the nearby Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
In 1999, he returned to Germany to become a research group leader at the Max Planck-Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. In 2003, he was offered a position as Associate Professor at Rockefeller University in New York, USA, where he continues to work. A few years later he also became Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).
Together with Phillip Sharp and other researchers, he founded the biopharmaceutical company Alnylam in Cambridge, USA, in 2002, which aims at developing novel therapeutics based on RNAi.
Thomas Tuschl has received many scientific awards in Germany and the USA, among them the Ernst-Schering-Prize in 2005 in Berlin, and in 2003 the Mayor's Award for Excellence in Science and Technology in New York, the Wiley Prize in the Biomedical Sciences, and the Newcomb Cleveland Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.