A British scientist whose work was once dismissed by colleagues as eccentric was awarded the 100th Nobel prize for medicine.

Sir Paul Nurse, the director general of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, shared the prize worth 10 million Swedish kronor (about £650,000) with his British colleague, Dr Timothy Hunt, the head of the Cell Cycle Control Laboratory at ICRF, and an American scientist, Dr Leland Hartwell, director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle.

Sir Paul, 52, said he would spend his share on a new motorbike. He already rides a 350cc Kawasaki but wants to upgrade to a 500cc. "I know it's the male menopause," he joked.

The trio won the prize, awarded on the vote of a 50-member scientific panel of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, for their work on the mechanisms of cell division, which has led to big advances in the understanding of how cancer develops.

Their discoveries, which have since been exploited by cancer laboratories all over the world, are expected to lead to new drugs and therapies for cancer. Sir Paul was knighted in 1999 and has been showered with honours in his 30-year research career.

Known for his informal management style at the helm of the ICRF, one of Britain's two leading cancer charities, Sir Paul is as often found in a white coat as in a suit. When he took over as director general in 1996, he made it a condition that he would continue with his research, and he is still head of the Cell Cycle Laboratory.

Sir Paul said: "The Imperial Cancer Research Fund took me on 15 years ago as a young scientist with a mission to understand the biology of cancer. It has supported and funded my work for two decades and I'm profoundly grateful that it has."

Armed with a degree in biology from the University of Birmingham and a PhD earned in 1973 from the University of East Anglia, Sir Paul joined ICRF in 1984, following research fellowships at Bern in Switzerland, Edinburgh, and Sussex Universities. He is married with two daughters.

Dr Hunt has headed ICRF's Cell Cycle Control Laboratory at Clare Hall Laboratories, South Mimms, Hertfordshire, for 10 years. Before this he was based at the University of Cambridge. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1991, and has won many awards for his research. He is also married with two daughters.

The two are the first UK-based researchers to win the Nobel prize since Sir James Black of Kings College Medical School took the honour in 1988 for his work on the action of drugs. Previous British winners include Sir Alexander Fleming, for the discovery of penicillin in 1945, and Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, who revealed the structure of DNA in 1962.

The last Briton to win the prize was Richard Roberts, a US-based researcher, who took it in 1993 with his American colleague, Phillip Sharp, for their work showing that most DNA is junk, and only a fraction provides the code for life.

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