Dr. Rudolf Jaenisch, professor of biology and a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, is co-recipient of the Molecular Bioanalytic Prize from the Boehringer Mannheim Group in Germany. He shares the 1966 award with Dr. Mario Capeechi of the University of Utah.
The two were cited for their "pioneering work in establishing transgenes as a basic tool for research in molecular biology and medicine."
Dr. Jaenisch, a physician, received his prize on April 23 in Munich, Germany, where he presented a lecture on "DNA Methylation in Development and Cancer."
"I am pleased to be receiving this award," he said. "Transgenic science is an important research tool because it allows us to study gene function in the context of a whole animal. It allows us to make mutations in a gene and study how it affects the animal. So that if we know which gene is mutated in a particular human disease, we can develop mouse models with the same mutation."
Today, mouse models of diseases such as epilepsy, colon cancer, hypertension and diabetes are providing new insights into the genetic basis of these diseases. Not too long ago, however, scientists had only cells in tissue culture to work with. Studies using tissue culture gave researchers valuable information about the function of genes and their role in disease, but often raised as many questions as they answered because disease is a function not of a single cell but of a whole organism.
Dr. Jaenisch's breakthrough work with tumor viruses and mice in the 1970s demonstrated for the first time that it was possible to integrate foreign DNA into the DNA of early mouse embryos; mice derived from these embryos carried the foreign genes in all of their tissues.
Subsequently, Dr. Jaenisch injected leukemia virus into early mouse embryos and showed that the DNA sequence of the leukemia virus had integrated into a specific location in the mouse DNAs, and that this trait was passed on according to the rules of Mendel.
These mice were the first transgenic animals in history. The mice came down with leukemia, showing that the genetically transmitted viral gene caused the disease. In the years since, these techniques have been further developed in Dr. Jaenisch's laboratory and in other labs worldwide. Of particular importance is the technology of gene targeting by recombination.
Today, all these technologies are commonly used to generate transgenic models of human disease. Such models allow scientists to understand the complex interplay of genetics, age, diet, hormone levels and other factors that affect the onset of diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
Most recently, Dr. Jaenisch has been focusing on a process called DNA methylation, which helps regulate the switching on and off of genes. Current projects in his lab are also shedding new light on the development of colon cancer, neurological disorders, connective tissue disorders and developmental abnormalities in muscle and bone.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 15, 1996.