2007: Sir Martin Evans
Widely acclaimed as the father of UK stem cell research, Evans was a pioneer in this field of research at Cambridge University in the 1980s. With MRC support he developed ways to culture embryonic stem cells derived from the mouse blastocyst – the ball of cells formed after fertilisation. This technique paved the way for gene targeting, which can be used to produce almost any type of DNA modification in the mouse genome, allowing scientists to investigate the roles of individual genes in health and disease.
The 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Evans (Cardiff University), Capecchi (University of Utah) and Smithies (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). In the mid-80s, Capecchi and Smithies were each trying to modify genes in mice but neither could find a way for their modifications to be passed on to subsequent generations. However, Evans had generated mice with new genetic material by using his cultured embryonic stem cells. Capecchi and Smithies – independently of each other – combined Evans’s discoveries to develop gene targeting and create so-called knock-out mice, in which the effects of one specific gene could be studied at a time. Gene targeting has since produced hundreds of different mouse models of human disorders, including cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes and cancer.