H(oward) Robert Horvitz, with Sydney Brenner and John Sulston, UK, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries about how genes regulate organ development via programmed cell death, or apoptosis.
He was born in Chicago in 1947, the son of fi rst generation Jewish immigrants, and was in the top stream in all his classes at the East Prairie Grammar School. His mother, a science teacher, encouraged his experiments, even when his ninth grade project involved breeding fruit fl ies in the bathroom. At high school he fared well, but had no clear idea about where he wanted to go to college or what he wanted to study. More by accident than design, therefore, he ended up at MIT. He received two degrees, in mathematics and economics, while also studying computer science and psychology. During the summer he worked for IBM. In his senior year, he also took courses in biology, genetics and neurobiology, and entered Harvard in 1968 to study biology. With such a departure from maths, he struggled at first, but was helped by fellow student Patricia Foster. They became a couple in 1970, and lived together for 13 years. Horvitz received a BA in 1972 and a PhD in 1974, and applied to join Sydney Brenner’s laboratory in Cambridge, England, to study neurobiology using nematode worms. Funded by the Muscular Dystrophy Association – and having crammed three crash courses in neurobiology into one summer – he and Pat arrived in November 1974.
Mindful of his MDA funding, Horvitz began by studying the worms’ musculature, and with John Sulston he soon began investigating muscle cell lineage and then cell lineage in general, which led to his prizewinning work on programmed cell death, a process that is essential for normal development in all animals – for example by killing off webbing tissue between digits during foetal growth. Horvitz continued his research after he returned to Boston in 1978 to set up a new laboratory at MIT. In 1986 he reported the fi rst two cell-killing genes, ced-3 and ced-4, and in 1992, ced-9, which can block the process. The nematode genes have human counterparts, making research on microscopic worms relevant to human medicine, concerning neurological disorders, cancer and many other diseases.
Horvitz is an active member of the Hereditary Disease Foundation, has served on several public bodies involving biology and genetics, and has advised the US National Cancer Institute, human genome research projects, and the Tropical Disease Program of the WHO. He is now married to Martha Constantine-Paton, a professor at MIT. They have two sons from Martha’s previous marriage, and a daughter, Alexandra.
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