The President’s Would-Be Pen Pal: Nobel Laureate Craig Mello

8/21/07

A packed ballroom full of conference goers is avidly waiting for UMass Medical School professor Craig Mello to tell them about RNA interference, or RNAi—the discovery of which earned Mello and his collaborator, Stanford’s Andrew Fire, last year’s Nobel Prize. Mello is not about to disappoint, but the first slides in his PowerPoint are not your typical highlights from the scientific literature. Instead, there’s a snapshot of a slightly uncomfortable-looking Mello standing next to a slightly dour-looking Vice President Dick Cheney. (Not exactly the same shot as this White House photo by David Bohrer, I think, but you get the idea.) In the upper left corner of the slide, Mello adds: “Vote!” And if that doesn’t work, he adds in the upper right: “Educate!!”

Last November, fresh off the announcement that he and Fire had won the Nobel and just ahead of the White House visit where this picture was taken, Mello made a valiant effort to educate the President himself about the importance of funding RNAi, and other biomedical research. For the conference crowd, gathered two weeks ago at Boston’s Seaport Hotel, Mello boils down the message of his one-page letter to the President: “We drilled the well, and the oil is flowing, but we need a pipeline.” But evidently, almost a year later, says Mello, “the letter is still on the desk.”

After Mello’s talk, I somehow managed to slip through the phalanx of fans angling for photos and autographs long enough to make my own request: I wanted to see that letter, and I wanted to share it with Xconomy’s readers. Mello was generous enough to oblige. (You can read the letter here.) He also shared a second letter, written a few months later to the newly elected Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick. In it, Mello outlines the promise of RNAi as a research tool and, eventually, as the basis for medical therapies. He then lays out in some detail the resources required to build an “RNAi Therapeutic Center” at the UMass medical school. This time, the note must have struck home because when Patrick unveiled the details of his $1 billion life-sciences initiative last month just such a center featured prominently in the plan.

What I love about these letters is how artfully each addresses its intended audience. (To Bush, Mello writes: “Importantly, RNAi is a natural process that occurs in all our cells, and its use to treat and study disease raises no ethical concerns.”) What troubles me is how differently Patrick and Bush reacted. If a U.S. researcher who’s essentially hopping the plane to Stockholm as he writes can’t get any response from the President, what member of the scientific community can?

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  • http://daley.med.harvard.edu/assets/Willy/willy.htm Willy Lensch

    I admire Prof. Mello for writing both of his letters though I fear that the one sent to a non-local zipcode was futile. The President has been unmoved (as far as I can tell) by letters from 80 Nobel Laureates suggesting an improved stem cell policy as well as another group including some Laureates calling for changes in environmental policy. Back in 2004, 48 holders of The Medal made a statement by supporting John Kerry, commenting that “the Bush administration has ignored unbiased scientific advice in the policy making that is so important to our collective welfare” (read the entire open letter here). There are other Nobel letters ranging on topics from nuclear weapons to scientific censorship. It’s a bunch. Granted, I don’t know how many such letters have been sent to every President. I imagine that it’s a bunch there as well. All I can say is, Professor Mello, nicely done sir. I’m glad that you made your pitch. 50/50 isn’t bad at all.