Dulbecco, Renato (1914-), an Italian-born American virologist, shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with David Baltimore and Howard Martin Temin of the United States for their research on how certain viruses affect the genes of cancer cells. Dulbecco demonstrated how viruses could transform normal cells into cancerous cells.
Dulbecco was born in Catanzaro, Italy. He decided to study medicine and received his M.D. degree in 1936 from the University of Turin. While working on his degree, he realized he was more interested in biology than in practicing medicine. So he went to work for Giuseppe Levi, a professor of anatomy. He met two students who would eventually play major roles in his life: Salvador Edward Luria and Rita Levi-Montalcini.
After receiving his M.D. degree, Dulbecco served in the military as a medical officer. He was discharged in 1938 and started postdoctoral work in pathology at the University of Turin. A year later, he was called to serve in World War II (1939-1945). He was injured in Russia and hospitalized for several months before being sent home. When the German Army took over Italy, Dulbecco joined the Resistance as a physician. After the war, he took a position on the city council of the city of Turin. However, he did not enjoy political life and returned to Levi's laboratory within months. He also returned to school and took physics classes for two years.
At Levi's laboratory, Dulbecco met up again with Levi-Montalcini, who encouraged him to go to the United States to study. In 1946, Luria, who had been working in the field of genetics at a laboratory in the United States, also encouraged him to make the trip. In 1947, Dulbecco moved to the United States and studied viruses at Indiana University along with Luria. Soon thereafter, he made a significant discovery. He discovered the photoreactivation of phages inactivated by ultraviolet light. This attracted the interest of German-born American biologist Max Delbruck, who offered him a position at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1949.
Under Delbruck's direction, Dulbecco conducted research on bacteria phages. When Caltech received funding for work in the animal virus field, Delbruck asked Dulbecco to do research in the area. Dulbecco then studied the poliomyelitis virus, and his research contributed to the development of a polio vaccine. He also discovered a way to assay animal viruses with a plaque assay technique using cell cultures. This discovery opened up the field of animal virology to laboratory research and led to the independent discovery of the enzyme reverse transcriptase by his students, Howard Temin and David Baltimore. The three shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Dulbecco became an associate professor and then full professor at Caltech, and in 1953, he became a U.S. citizen.
Dulbecco left Caltech for the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, in 1963. There he also conducted research in animal tumor viruses. In 1972. he left the United States and went to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, where he continued his studies in cancer. Dulbecco then returned to the United States. From 1977 to 1981, he was professor at the University of California Medical School, San Diego. He then returned to the Salk Institute in 1977. In 1986, he proposed the Human Genome Project to map the entire genome and identify all of the genes that make up the human genomic structure.
He served as president of the Salk Institute from 1989 to 1992. In 1990, he became director of the Italian Group of the Human Genome Program at the National Research Council of Milan, Italy. There he conducted further research, particularly in the origin of breast cancer. In 2000, he announced his discovery of the gene responsible for malignant osteopetrosis, a fatal hereditary disease that affects newborns.