“The most immediate benefit is going to be doing experiments that teach us things”
Transcript of the telephone interview with Professor Andrew Z. Fire immediately following the announcement of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, October 2, 2006. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
[Andrew Fire] – Hello.
[Adam Smith] – Good morning, may I speak to Professor Fire please?
[AF] – This is he.
[AS] – Oh hello, my name is Adam Smith. I’m calling from the official website of the Nobel Foundation. First of all of course many, many congratulations on the award of the Prize. Where were you when you heard the news?
[AF] – Um, I was presumably in my kitchen, where the phone is. I went to get the phone at one something in the morning, our time.
[AS] – Yeah, that’s pretty early. You must be sleepy. What was your first thought on being told?
[AF] – Well, one’s elated, but science is a big thing. So, you immediately think of all the people that have helped make it happen and think about the fact that you’re still a pretty small cog in a pretty big wheel.
[AS] – Yes, indeed. You and Professor Mello have been winning quite a few prizes recently. Was this one expected at this time, do you think?
[AF] – I don’t think this is an expected thing for anybody anytime. You know, it’s obviously a great honour. We’ve treated all these things as wonderful gifts, essentially, but in terms of expecting anything we’ve already gotten tremendous amounts of credit out of it, so neither Craig nor I feel that we deserve anything more.
[AS] – The discovery has really inspired a very large number of people to enter the field. Do you think the award of the prize will further encourage people to move into the RNA field?
[AF] – I certainly hope it will. It has been tremendous to watch all the different waves of people from different expertise coming to the field. First a whole bunch of biochemists and then a bunch of chemists doing the character of the RNA, and people doing genetics of it. And then suddenly you get pharmacologists, people coming in and saying how could we change this into a drug and a treatment. And the high throughput people, experts, engineers. And so I think that will continue, and what one sees in the next five years I don’t know.
[AS] – What led you to move into the field? Was there one person or line of enquiry that led you to RNA interference?
[AF] – Well, we were led to it pretty much by our experimental noses. The people in the plant field had done tremendous work on gene silencing and so we, sort of, were following in their footsteps in trying to sort out what was responsible for this weird silencing phenomenon in the worm. The other groups that I think really led us was a whole bunch of people working on this little filamentous fungus called Neurospora, and they had discovered some interesting silencing mechanisms that turned out to be slightly different (at least the ones that had been characterized were much more complex) but were really sort of an impetus to keep going and study it. And I think the third thing is that before we had really put our toe into this field a lot of people, including Craig and Craig’s lab and a number of other labs – the first person being Sue Guo when she was a graduate student at Cornell – had been doing what they called antisense to knock genes out in the worm as a tool, and started to observe all these unusual features. I get drawn to unsolved questions that don’t make any sense, so, it certainly was a draw.
[AS] – Right, right. There are obviously very high hopes for the application of RNA interference now, in many fields. Which do you think will be the most immediate benefits of harnessing the natural mechanism you have discovered?
[AF] – The most immediate benefit is going to be doing experiments that teach us things. People have already done tremendous numbers of experiments. There’s a wonderful study that Rene Bernards’ group in Holland did where they used RNA interference to basically characterize a given tumour type and then once they figured it out they said, “You could treat this with aspirin.” And then they put aspirin on it. And so, that wasn’t using RNAi as a drug, it was just using it to learn about the [system]. I think that, for a while, that’s going to be the major … nothing may be quite that simple. And then eventually people may figure out exactly what it takes and what the risks and the benefits are of using it as a therapy. And there’s a great amount of wonderful work going on in that area; just the early stages, very early clinical trials, some animal model studies. It is going to be a little while I think. One thing I remember saying to a reporter once, on the occasion of RNAi getting thought about as a treatment for high cholesterol, was don’t celebrate with ice-cream, celebrate with frozen yoghurt. So, you know, I think the successes are going to be there but it’s also going to take a lot of stamina from the people doing the work. There may be things that don’t work quite so well, there may be setbacks, as for any new therapeutic.
[AS] – It’s a basic research tool at the moment?
[AF] – It’s a basic research tool with some eyes, with some windows into potential therapeutics. I’ll be as excited as everybody when it all pans out.
[AS] – Yes, of course, and talking of excitement, have you been able to give any thought yet to what you might do to celebrate today?
[AF] – I haven’t really thought about that. It’s obviously a special day for a lot of people.
[AS] – Yes, there are an awful lot of people to tell although I guess they’ll learn through various sources. But thanks very much for taking the time to speak to us now, and again, many, many congratulations.
[AF] – Thank you very much.
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