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J. Michael Bishop (1936 - Present)

Susan Wiegand


Nothing ever suggested to young J. Michael Bishop that science and research would bring him fame and fortune. Born in York, Pennsylvania, population 400, the son of a Lutheran minister, Bishop spent his youth hammering out hymns on the organ in his father's church. A psychological test conducted at his high school suggested that perhaps he would be a good music teacher or forest ranger. "No mention of science," Bishop recalled.

The future Nobel Laureate in Biology went off to study liberal arts at Gettysburg College, earning a pre-med minor. His scientific brilliance soon began to assert itself, and he was admitted to Harvard University to study medicine. For the young man from the Pennsylvania countryside, Boston was paradise: theaters and museums and a symphony! Not to mention the wealth of universities, overflowing with the best and the brightest students from all over the world. His research earned him accolades, but the lesson of his childhood expectations kept him wide-eyed at his own success. Even as a professor of biology at the University of California San Francisco, he would never have guessed that when young Harold Varmus walked into his laboratory and asked to work with him, that the mentorship would turn into a research partnership and eventually earn both of them the highest recognition accorded to scientists.

Their research revolved around the study of oncogenes. Oncogenes are normal genes that control growth in every living cell, but under certain conditions can turn renegade and cancerous. Bishop's and Varmus' work - along with the work of a number of other research scientists - was based on the hypothesis that the growth of cancer cells is not the result of an invasion from outside the cell, but rather a misuse of a normal gene by a retrovirus, as a result of exposure to some aggravating carcinogen, such as radiation or cigarette smoke.

The research conducted under the supervision of the two doctors at UCSF in the mid-seventies has led to great strides in the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of a variety of cancers. Over 50 oncogenes have been identified, some of which cause cancer by being turned on or activated at the wrong time, but others, referred to as "anti-oncogenes," which do the opposite - causing cancer by failing to shut off growth at the right time.

Not surprising given his broad background in both the arts and sciences, Bishop is a fervent supporter of taking a larger view of science, allowing oneself to follow one's instincts rather than conventional paths of specialization. Bishop himself did not specialize in basic research until he was well past thirty, an age when most academics have long since settled into their specialty. Nevertheless, his work in microbiology has been recognized by the two highest honors awarded to scientific research: The Lasker Prize, which he won in 1982, and the Nobel Prize, which he received in 1989 along with Harold Varmus, his partner in researching oncogenes.


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