J. Michael Bishop (1936 - Present)
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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