Uncovering the genetics of cell division, providing insight into cancer
Dr. Lee Hartwell didn't realize as a boy that his youthful predilection for chasing butterflies hinted at his future as a geneticist. Nor did his teen-age tinkering on auto engines give him a clue that he would win a Nobel Prize. But today, his career's work in cell genetics has changed the way we think about life itself.
Early in his research career, Hartwell set out to find an organism simple enough to experiment on, yet complex enough to provide insight into humans. He made a risky choice: to use yeast, the same single-celled fungus that makes bread dough rise. At the time, most scientists thought yeast was not a good model for understanding the complexity of human cells.
Hartwell persisted, and a series of experiments over several years led to a landmark discovery. He discovered the genes that control cell division-genes that turned out to be the universal machinery for cell growth in organisms from fungi to frogs to humans.
This discovery in yeast not only showed the unity of all life, it also had practical applications for human health.
By identifying "checkpoint" genes that determine whether a cell is dividing normally, Hartwell provided important clues to cancer, which arises from abnormal, uncontrolled cell growth. Hartwell's discoveries have led him and other scientists to explore ways to stop abnormal cells from dividing. Researchers hope this work will lead to new and better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.
For his insightful discoveries, Hartwell received the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
Washington state Governor Gary Locke proclaimed December 10, 2001 as Dr. Lee Hartwell Day.