Renato Dulbecco: Virologist and Nobel laureate

 

Renato Dulbecco was a former member of the Italian resistance who went on to receive the 1975 Nobel Prize for his work on viruses and cancer. He shared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine with two of his former students, Howard Temin and David Baltimore, for demonstrating how certain types of viruses invade mammalian cells to cause cancer. In the late 1950s Dulbecco illustrated that certain viruses can insert their own genes into infected cells and trigger uncontrolled cell growth, a trademark of cancer. This was achieved before it was possible to sequence DNA.

The discovery provided the first solid evidence that cancer was caused by genetic mutations, and changed the way scientists thought about the effects of carcinogens. Believing his research had broad implications for cancer prevention, at his Nobel address Dulbecco called for increased restrictions on tobacco and urged governments to limit dangerous chemicals. "While we spend our life asking questions about the nature of cancer and ways to prevent or cure it," he said, "society merrily produces oncogenic substances and permeates the environment with them."

He was also one of the first advocates of the human genome project: in 1986 he recommended cataloguing all human genes to gain insights into cancer, providing the intellectual impetus for the Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003. Many thought this would be expensive and useless, but it has proved invaluable.

Renato Dulbecco was born in Catanzaro in southern Italy in 1914, moving shortly after with his family to the north. After the First World War his father, a civil engineer, was sent to Imperia, near the French frontier, where the young Dulbecco spent much time at a small meteorological observatory and developed an interest in physics. He built a working electronic seismograph, probably one of the first of its kind.

He attended Turin University, initially to study chemistry and physics, but he changed to medicine after consulting his uncle, a surgeon, graduating in 1936. In the Second World War he served in France and Russia, where he was injured in 1942. After recuperation, he went AWOL and returned to Italy, hiding in a village near Turin before joining the partisans as a medical officer. After the war, Dulbecco became a member of the Committee for National Liberation in Turin and joined the city council. However, political life did not suit him and he returned to Turin University to study physics and conduct biological research.

In 1947, a former fellow student, Salvador Luria, recruited Dulbecco to Indiana University, where he shared a laboratory with James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Dulbecco studied bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria. He showed that bacteriophages disabled by exposure to ultraviolet light could be reactivated by bursts of white light. His work caught the attention of Max Delbrück, who offered him a post at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1949.

Collaborating with Marguerite Vogt, Dulbecco developed a method for measuring the quantity of virus in animal cells in tissue culture, paving the way for the development of the Sabin polio vaccine. He then turned to the connection between viruses and cancer; he was intrigued by the work of his student, Howard Temin, who wrote his thesis on the topic. Dulbecco experimented with viruses known to cause tumours in animals; at the time, no viruses had been linked to human cancers. Since then, a handful have been shown to cause cancer in humans, including the human papillomavirus, responsible for most cervical cancers.

In later years, Dulbecco studied breast cancer and concluded that breast cancer stem cells gone awry might be responsible for certain types of breast tumours. In 2000, he announced his discovery of the gene responsible for malignant osteopetrosis, a fatal hereditary disease that affects newborns.

Given US citizenship in 1953, Dulbecco was a faculty member and Professor at Caltech from 1949-62 before moving to The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, where he worked until 1972. He then moved to London to serve as a director of the Imperial Cancer Fund. He returned to Salk in 1977, serving as president from 1988-92. In his free time, Dulbecco, a classically trained pianist, enjoyed giving recitals.

Martin Childs

Renato Dulbecco, virologist: born Catanzaro, Italy 22 February 1914; married firstly Giuseppina Salvo (marriage dissolved; one daughter, and one son deceased), 1963 Maureen Muir (marriage dissolved; one daughter); died La Jolla, California 19 February 2012.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition