Nobel upsets travel plans

October 19, 2007

Profile - Sir Martin Evans, Professor of Mammalian Genetics, Cardiff University. It was exactly nine minutes before the Nobel Prize for Medicine was announced last week that Professor Sir Martin Evans got wind that something big was about to happen, writes Zoe Corbyn.

He was driving in Cambridge after a weekend of helping his daughter with house renovations in preparation for her first baby - and his fifth grandchild - when he missed a frantic call from his university, Cardiff. Left on his mobile was a number in Sweden that he was to ring immediately. "So I did, and the chairman of the committee said: 'I have some good news for you.' He then added: 'I am awfully sorry, I can't talk any more because the press conference announcing it is just about to begin.'"

The good news was, of course, that Sir Martin had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The prize to the professor of mammalian genetics at Cardiff University's School of Biosciences was for his work on stem cells leading to the development of the "knockout" gene technique whereby scientists can replicate human diseases in mice by introducing genetic changes.

"I think what the Nobel committee look at is the influence these discoveries have had, and the impact on physiology and medicine, which is immense," explains Sir Martin, who describes the sensation of winning as "amazing". "We are being awarded this for having developed a technology that is used all over the world. It has become the standard technology for uncovering and understanding biology of this sort."

Sir Martin shares the £755,000 prize with two other scientists - Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah and Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina, who is also British born. While professors Capecchi and Smithies developed different parts of the technique independently from Sir Martin, he was the first to identify embryonic stem cells in mice while at Cambridge University in 1981. He then showed that the cells could be used to fully regenerate fertile breeding mice and could therefore carry any gene mutation introduced, the basis for the mouse knockout technique.

Britain's "father of stem cell research", as he has been widely described, was knighted in 2004 for his services to medical science and has published more than 120 scientific papers.

He says he has been a scientist from the year dot. In 1963, he got his BA from Cambridge and six years later he got his PhD from University College London, where he studied mouse tumour cells before continuing his research at Cambridge.

He started at Cardiff in 1999, when he was offered the chance to head a new combined School of Biosciences, an opportunity he relished because the university was interested in "a broad school" rather than separating the subject into various disciplines as other UK universities were doing.

"Cardiff wanted it to be run as one rather than as separate departments, so it gave me the big opportunity to draw it together, to reinvigorate it, to employ a lot of new staff, and I was able to do that and get some wonderful people in," he recalls.

Although he no longer heads the school, he is active in the lab and will be until he retires at the end of the year.

Sir Martin says he did "have a hint" that he might be in the frame for the Nobel prize after he won the US Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research in 2001, which is considered to be a good predictor of the Nobel. However, he added that it was something you simply "cannot hope for".

He sees the Nobel not just as a personal honour but as a tribute to the tenacity of British science. "I am very pleased, not only for myself but also for UK science and for science in Wales and Cardiff, of course. We (in the UK) are still in there, thank goodness, despite all our cuts and problems, and I hope it may help other UK scientists."

Of the big issues facing scientists now, he worries most about over- bureaucratisation and over-regulation. "We need to prevent abuse but not prevent enterprise," he says.

He also predicts the "writing is on the wall" that human embryonic stem cells will be made in the future without the use of embryos, as has recently been done with mice. "The embryo is going to be out of the loop, and I think all the ethical and other angst about human embryonic stem cells should disappear at that stage," he says.

Of his winnings, Sir Martin predicted he will probably be giving some to his children, putting some towards a house he is in the midst of building, and will consider buying another camper van - he sold his old one due to lack of parking space.

There is lots of continental Europe yet to explore in his retirement, he muses, although he adds that his recent accolade might keep him busier than he had planned.

I GRADUATED FROM - Cambridge University with a BA in biochemistry

MY FIRST JOB - was working with Elizabeth Deuchar at University College London on Xenopus? (a genus of frog) development.

MY MAIN CHALLENGE - was to survive as an individual academic through times of considerable reduction in research support, against competition from the US.

WHAT I HATE MOST - I think, overall, hate is an unhelpful emotion.

IN TEN YEARS - I hope that I and all my family are as well and active as we are now.

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