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On the Road

Howard Hughes chief drives innovation.

Tom Cech knows something about the road less traveled. In 1979, the young biologist was in his laboratory at the University of Colorado at Boulder, investigating DNA-to-RNA synthesis. While studying the genes of the single-cell pond protozoan Tetrahymena thermophila, he found that one gene was interrupted by a stretch of noncoding DNA, known as an intron. During the transcription process, the intron was removed and the two coding sequences were spliced together. Furthermore, the molecule that catalyzed the process wasnít a protein, but RNA itself, a nucleic acid that behaved just like an enzyme. The term ribozyme entered the biochemical lexicon.

Tom Cech; Copyright © 2004 Acumen Sciences, LLC, All Rights Reserved.In 1989, Dr. Cech and Sidney Altman of Yale University were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for independently figuring out this new role of RNA. The discovery spawned a flurry of research into RNA, and several companies began focusing on using RNA to develop new drugs. One of these was Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals—now called Sirna Therapeutics—which was founded in 1992 using Dr. Cechís patents and discoveries.

In 2000, the bespectacled 56 year old received an unexpected offer: presidency of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the $12 billion research organization in Chevy Chase, Maryland. “This job is unique in the world,” he says. “I didnít know if I would still be alive when another vacancy came up.”

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» Tom Cech

Stanley Falkow

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