Gone: 'One of the Most Brilliant Scientific Minds'

Zosia Chustecka

February 22, 2012

February 22, 2012 — Pioneering cancer researcher and Nobel laureate Renato Dulbecco, MD, died last week in his home at La Jolla, California, at the age of 97 years.

Dr. Dulbecco, credited with discovering the first clue to the genetic nature of cancer, which earned him and colleagues the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was one of the founding fellows of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, and worked there for much of his career.

"Renato was one of the most brilliant scientific minds of our generation," said William Brody, president of the Salk Institute.

Dr. Dulbecco accepts his Nobel Prize in 1975.

In the research that earned the Nobel prize, Dr. Dulbecco and colleagues described how a tumor virus could insert its own genes into the chromosome of the cell it infects, and so "turn on" the uncontrolled growth that is the hallmark of cancer, according to a press release from the Salk Institute.

He was also the first to use monoclonal antibodies to identify cells by their genetic signature. His seminal research identified and clarified the roles of many genes responsible for breast development and their involvement in cancer, according to the release.

It also notes how his insights about the way "genes can be used by cancer, as well as used against the disease, led Dulbecco to challenge the scientific community to systematically sequence and catalog all human genes," and how this gave "intellectual birth" to the worldwide Human Genome Project.

From Italy to America

Two short autobiographical articles on the Nobel Prize Web site describe his achievements, and a recording of Dr. Dulbecco talking about his life and work is available on the Web of Stories Web site.

Dr. Dulbecco was born in Catanzaro, Italy, and studied medicine at the University of Turin. He recalls that he "was at the top of my class, although I was 2 years younger than everyone else."

During World War II, he was sent briefly to the French front, but was injured and sent home. Later, he joined the resistance movement as a physician for local partisan groups around Piemonte, Italy.

He emigrated to the United States in 1947, initially to Indiana University in Bloomington, where he worked alongside 2 scientists who would also go on to win Nobel Prizes: James Watson, codiscoverer of the structure of DNA; and Salvador Luri, who showed that bacterial resistance to viruses is genetically inherited.

Dr. Dulbecco in the lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Dr. Dulbecco's own Nobel Prize–winning research on viruses and cancer was conducted at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where he worked from 1949 to 1963. He recalls driving to California with his family in "an old car, with our limited possessions in a small trailer. I was fascinated by the beauty and immensity of the USA, and the kindness of its people."

After that, he moved to the Salk Institute, where he completed 2 tenures — from 1963 to 1972 and from 1977 to 1981. He served as president of the institute from 1988 to 1992. Between the tenures, Dr. Dulbecco worked at the Imperial Cancer Fund in London, United Kingdom, and for years contributed to projects at the National Research Council of Italy.

To highlight his achievements, the Salk Institute established the Renato Dulbecco Laboratories for Cancer Research and endowed a professorship carrying his name. The first holder of that professorship is Tony Hunter, PhD, who is also director of the Salk Institute Cancer Center.

Speaking about the legacy that Dr. Dulbecco left behind, Dr. Hunter said: "His pioneering work using polyomavirus as a model for understanding human cancer had an enormous impact on the field of cancer research, setting the stage for the subsequent molecular studies of genes that cause cancer."

"He made us all better scientists," he added.