Sir Martin Evans, Nobel Prize in Medicine
In 2007 Professor Sir Martin Evans from the School of Biosciences was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for a series of ground-breaking discoveries concerning embryonic stem cells and DNA recombination in mammals.
Professor Sir Martin Evans was appointed president of the University in 2009 and became our Chancellor in 2012, a role he held for eight years before stepping down in March 2017.
The Nobel Assembly announced Professor Sir Martin as one of three winners for “a series of ground-breaking discoveries concerning embryonic stem cells and DNA recombination in mammals.”
Sir Martin was the first scientist to identify embryonic stem cells, which can be adapted for a wide variety of medical purposes. His discoveries are now being applied in virtually all areas of biomedicine – from basic research to the development of new therapies.
He shares the £755,000 prize with two other pioneers in the stem cell field, Professor Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah and Professor Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina. Their research has created the technology known as gene targeting, now used in virtually all areas of biomedicine – from basic research to the development of new therapies.
Gene targeting is often used to inactivate single genes. Experiments can then shed light on the role of the genes in development, aging and disease. The technique has already produced more than 500 different models of human disorders, including cardio-vascular diseases, diabetes and cancer.
Announcing the award, the Nobel Assembly said of the three men’s research: “Its impact on the understanding of gene function and its benefits to mankind will continue to increase over many years to come.”
One of the first people to congratulate Sir Martin was the then Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University, Dr David Grant. “The prize is tribute not just to the academic brilliance of Sir Martin’s discoveries but also to the wide-ranging benefits of his research,” he said. The Prime Minister and the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government are among the many paying tribute to his achievement.
Sir Martin has been a key figure in establishing Cardiff University as a world-leading centre for biomedical research.
The science - gene targeting
The genetic techniques developed by Professor Sir Martin Evans and his two fellow Nobel Laureates have brought huge benefits, having been adopted in laboratories the world over for vital research into hundreds of diseases and disorders.
Yet, just 20 years before their breakthroughs, mainstream scientific opinion regarded such techniques as “impossible.”
Sir Martin shares his Nobel Prize with Professor Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah and UK-born Professor Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina.
Professors Capecchi and Smithies had the vision to see that mammalian cells could be genetically modified by a process called homologous recombination. Their experiments suggested that all genes could be modified in this way.
However, the cells they studied could not be used to create lines of animals in which a specific gene had been modified. A new kind of cell was needed, which could give rise to germ cells and allow DNA modifications to be inherited.
Sir Martin’s contribution was to discover these cells. Initial attempts with carcinoma cells from mice were unsuccessful. However, he then turned his attention to embryonic stem cells. He modified these cells genetically and showed they would create mice which could pass on the new genes to the next generation.
The marriage of Professors Capecchi and Smithies’ homologous recombination technique with Sir Martin’s stem cell discoveries has created the highly versatile new technology of gene targeting.
It is now possible to introduce mice strains (known as “knockout mice”) in which specific genetic modifications can be activitated at specific times, or in specific cells or organs. It is possible to study almost every aspect of mammalian physiology in this way. The technique has been used for research in fields as diverse as cancer, immunology, neurobiology, human genetic disorders and endocrinology.
Sir Martin himself has used the technique in studying cystic fibrosis and breast cancer. Professor Capechi has shed light on the causes of several human birth abnormalities, while Professor Smithies has worked on the blood disease thalassemia and hypertension.
However, scientists are still barely scratching the surface of the full capabilities of gene targeting technology. As the Nobel Assembly said in awarding the prize to the three professors: “Its benefits to mankind will continue to increase over many years to come.”