Biologist Zamecnik '33 passes away at 96

by Jackie Donohoe | 11/19/09 11:00pm

Renowned scientific researcher Paul Zamecnik '33, who is credited with the discovery of a molecule critical for protein synthesis, died Oct. 27 of cancer in his home in Boston at the age of 96, according to his daughter, Elizabeth Coakley. Zamecnik, long considered a front-runner for the Nobel Prize, enrolled in Dartmouth Medical School at the time a two-year program in 1934, and later finished his medical degree at Harvard University, where he spent the majority of his career.

"His work gave him meaning in life and a purpose," Coakley said in an interview with The Dartmouth on Thursday.

Zamecnik, working with Mahlon Hoagland and Mary Louise Stephenson in 1956, discovered transfer RNA, the molecule responsible for transporting amino acids to the ribosome, the cell structure where amino acids are linked together to form proteins. Zamecnik and his colleagues used radioactively labeled amino acids to track the molecules as they moved throughout the cell, which led to the discovery.

Zamecnik always said it was unfortunate that Stevenson did not receive more recognition for her work, Coakley said.

Zamecnik's death falls within a month of Hoagland's passing on Sept. 18 and Stephenson's passing on Sept. 26.

Zamecnik is also credited with the discovery of antisense therapy, which uses strands of DNA and RNA to block genes' activity. The technology is now central to research on a variety of therapeutic agents, including those relevant to cancer and HIV. Many researchers remained skeptical of the theory until 1978, when Zamecnik demonstrated that DNA and RNA could enter cells and carry out this function, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Zamecnik co-founded Hybridon, Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., in 1990. The company, which worked on antisense drugs, eventually merging with Idera Pharmaceuticals in 2004, the LA Times reported.

Despite being passed over for the Nobel Prize, Zamecnik received the National Medal of Science in 1991 and the Lasker Award in 1996.

Born Nov. 22, 1912, in Cleveland, Ohio, Zamecnik enrolled at Dartmouth when he was 16, earning bachelor's degrees in chemistry and zoology in 1933. Until just before his death, Zamecnik maintained a laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he continued studies of antisense hybrids for chemotherapeutic treatment of drug resistant tuberculosis.

"Dr. Zamecnik was one of the preeminent scientists of the 20th century and a role model for many who followed," Dennis Ausiello, chief of the department of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a statement.

Zamecnik's wife, Mary Connor, who died in 2005, worked beside him in the laboratory. In addition to Coakley, Zamecnik is survived by a second daughter, Karen Zamecnik Pierson, and a son, John Zamecnik.

"The family misses him dearly," Coakley said. "He was a great presence in our family. He was a driving force and inspiration even to all of us."