February 22, 1914 (age 95)
|Institutions||California Institute of
London Research Institute
|Alma mater||University of Turin|
|Known for||Reverse transcriptase|
|Notable awards||Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975|
Renato Dulbecco (born February 22, 1914) is an Italian virologist who won a 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on reverse transcriptase. In 1973 he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University together with Theodore Puck and Harry Eagle.
He was born in Catanzaro (Southern Italy) to a Calabrese mother and a Ligurian father. He graduated from high school at 16, then moved to the University of Turin. Despite a strong interest for mathematics and physics, he decided to study medicine. At only 22, he graduated in morbid anatomy and pathology under the supervision of professor Giuseppe Levi. During these years he met Salvador Luria and Rita Levi-Montalcini, whose friendship and encouragement would later bring him to the United States. In 1936 he was called up for military service as a medical officer, and later (1938) discharged. In 1940 Italy entered World War II and Dulbecco was recalled and sent to the front in France and Russia, where he was wounded. After hospitalization and the collapse of Fascism, he joined the resistance against the German occupation.
After the war he resumed his work at Levi's laboratory, but soon he moved, together with Levi-Montalcini, to the USA, where, in Bloomington, Indiana, he worked with Salvador Luria on bacteriophages. In the summer of 1949 he moved to Caltech, joining Max Delbrück's group. There he started his studies about animal oncoviruses. In the late 1950s, he took Howard Temin as a student, with whom, and together with David Baltimore, he would later share the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "their discoveries concerning the interaction between tumour viruses and the genetic material of the cell." Temin and Baltimore arrived at the discovery of reverse transcriptase simultaneously and independently from each other; although Dulbecco did not take direct part in either of their experiments, he had taught the two methods they used to make the discovery.
Throughout this time he also worked with Marguerite Vogt. In 1962, he moved to the Salk Institute and then in 1972 to The Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now named the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute). In 1986 he was among the scientists who launched the Human Genome Project. In 1993 he moved back to Italy, where he is currently president of the Institute of Biomedical Technologies at C.N.R. (National Council of Research) in Milan. He also retains his position on the faculty of Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
Dulbecco and his group demonstrated that the infection of normal cells with certain types of viruses (oncoviruses) led to the incorporation of virus-derived genes into the host-cell genome, and that this event lead to the transformation (the acquisition of a tumor phenotype) of those cells. As demonstrated by Temin and Baltimore, who shared the Nobel Prize with Dulbecco, the transfer of viral genes to the cell is mediated by an enzyme called reverse transcriptase (or, more precisely, RNA-dependent DNA polymerase), which replicates the viral genome (in this case made of RNA) into DNA, which is later incorporated in the host genome.
Oncoviruses are the cause of some forms of human cancers. Dulbecco's study gave a basis for precise understanding of the molecular mechanisms by which they propagate, thus allowing us to better fight them. Furthermore, the mechanisms of carcinogenesis mediated by oncoviruses closely resemble the process by which normal cells degenerate into cancer cells. Dulbecco's discoveries allowed us to better understand and fight cancer.