Nobel Prize helps scientist find lost half-sister

Image: Mario Capecchi
Mario Capecchi was reunited with the long-lost half sister he didn't know he had as a result of winning the Nobel Prize in medicine. Douglas C. Pizac / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Winning the Nobel Prize in medicine has helped Mario Capecchi discover the long-lost sibling he never knew he had.

Capecchi, 70, a geneticist at the University of Utah, returned to his native Italy last month and met with his half-sister, who believed Capecchi and her mother had died during World War II. Then Marlene Bonelli saw the headlines when Capecchi won the Nobel Prize in medicine last fall.

Capecchi and Bonelli had the same mother and lived together briefly as children. She is a year younger and was adopted by an Austrian family.

The Dolomiten newspaper arranged the reunion at a hotel in the mountainous northern Italian region of Bolzano.

Capecchi said they had to speak through an interpreter because she does not speak English, he does not speak German and neither speaks much Italian.

"She had been under the impression that our mother and myself had died in the war," Capecchi told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview Thursday. "She is a very nice person as any sister should be."

Capecchi did not know that his mother had given birth to a girl in February 1939. A few months later, his mother entrusted the infant to friends, Max Bonelli and Luise Linder, fearing that she would soon be arrested.

As a child in Italy during World War II, Capecchi lived for years on the streets and in orphanages. He was separated from his mother at age 3 when the Gestapo arrested her as a political prisoner in 1941 and took her to a concentration camp near Munich. His mother, an American-born poet, and his father, an Italian military officer, were not married.

Capecchi spent a year with a peasant family, until the money his mother left for his care ran out. For about four years, he lived on the streets or in orphanages, and ended up in a hospital with malnutrition. His mother survived and eventually found him on his 9th birthday.

His mother took him back to the United States and he grew up with his uncle's family in Pennsylvania, but no one ever told him about his sister.

When news of his Nobel award broke, Bonelli informed the local media in Austria that the famous scientist was her brother she had never met. Dolomiten sent Capecchi photos of Bonelli, now 69.

"Looking at the pictures it was obviously my sister," Capecchi told the Salt Lake newspaper, noting her resemblance to his mother, who died in 1987.

Capecchi and two other researchers shared the Nobel for their work that led to a powerful and widely used technique to manipulate genes in mice, which has helped scientists study heart disease, diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis and other diseases.