J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus, colleagues at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco, shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine "for their discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes". This large family of genes controls the normal growth and division of cells ('onco' is Greek for bulk or mass). Disturbances in these oncogenes can lead to transformation of a normal cell into a tumour cell and result in cancer. The term oncogene was introduced in the 1960s to denote special parts of the genetic material of certain viruses. The first oncogenic virus was discovered by Peyton Rous in 1910. ' Rous sarcoma virus' is a retrovirus, which uses a reverse transcriptase enzyme to turn infected RNA (ribonucleic acid) into DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), effectively integrating the virus into the body's make-up.
Through their investigation of the Rous sarcoma virus, Bishop and Varmus demonstrated the origin of oncogenes. Their work has increased knowledge about tumour development and the systems that govern the normal growth of cells.
Bishop was born on February 22, 1936 in York, Pennsylvania, the son (one of three children) of a Lutheran minister and had little contact with city life until his early 20s. He attended rural schools but was a keen student and, inspired by the family doctor, entered Gettysburg College to study chemistry, intent on a medical career. He graduated in 1957 and went on to Harvard Medical School. Bishop married his sweetheart from Gettysburg, Kathryn Putman and they have two sons. He also developed a passion for molecular biology and took a course in animal virology. He graduated in 1962 and joined the Massachusetts General Hospital as a house doctor for two years before beginning research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. In 1968, after a year's sabbatical to Hamburg, Germany, Bishop joined his former mentor Leon Levintow at UCSF. It was there that he also met Warren Levinson, who was studying the Rous Sarcoma Virus. The trio joined forces but it was Howard Temin and David Baltimore who discovered reverse transcriptase.
Bishop continued his work, however, and was joined in 1970 by Harold Varmus. Together (and aided by Dominique Stehelin, Deborah Spector and Peter Vogt) they used one variant of the Rous virus that contained an oncogenic gene and another which did not in order to construct a nucleic acid probe that identified the oncogene in different species throughout the animal kingdom. They published their findings in 1976. Bishop rose to Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at UCSF and director of the GW Hooper Research Foundation and of the educational Program in Biological Sciences. He has collected numerous awards, mostly with Varmus, and is a member of several American scientific academies and societies.
This text and the picture of the Nobel Laureate were taken from the book: "NOBELS Nobel Laureates photographed by Peter Badge" (WILEY-VCH, 2008).
Picture: © Peter Badge/ Foundation Lindau Nobelprizewinners Meetings at Lake Constance