Virologist and Nobel laureate

Callie JonesRenato Dulbecco was born on 22 February 1914 in Catanzaro, southern Italy, but grew up in the northwest of the country. Although he had a strong interest in mathematics and physics, he chose to study medicine at the University of Turin. Among his fellow students were Salvador Luria and Rita Levi-Montalcini. All three were destined to win Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine.

Dulbecco served as a medical officer in the Italian army during the 1939–45 war, but after Mussolini’s government collapsed and the administration was taken over by the German army, he joined the Italian resistance, giving medical support to partisans in the Piedmont region.

In 1947 Luria persuaded Dulbecco and Levi-Montalcini to move to the US. Dulbecco’s work on bacteriophages took him to the California Institute of Technology, where he developed a technique to assay animal viruses, opening up animal virology to quantitative work. In 1958 he began working on polyomaviruses. His interest in these potentially oncogenic viruses took him from Caltech, via the Salk Institute, to what was then the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories in London in 1972 to work in the field of human cancer.

Dulbecco shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with two of his former students for their research into the interaction between tumour viruses and the genetic material of the cell. David Baltimore and Howard Temin discovered reverse transcriptase independently of each other using methods taught to them by Dulbecco. Their work on the enzyme that allows RNA tumour virus particles to make a DNA copy from RNA (and so become incorporated into a host cell genome) led to a better understanding of cancer and the human immunodeficiency virus, and also to the development of reverse transcriptase inhibitors such as zidovudine.

In the mid-1980s Dulbecco was one of the scientists who launched the human genome project. He returned briefly to his homeland to organise Italy’s part in it.

He remained actively involved in medical research, particularly into stem cells, until well into his 90s. He died just short of his 98th birthday on 19 February 2012.

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