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Tuesday, Jul 23, 2024

Recognizing the Nobel Prize-Winners in Our Midst

Last month, the Swedish consulate, BIOCOM and 300 guests recognized two Nobel Laureates at the Hotel del Coronado.

Two other Nobel Laureates were unable to attend at the last moment. The event coincided to the day with this year’s Nobel Prize presentations in Stockholm, Sweden.

Besides being Nobel Laureates, the honorees share one other thing in common , they all live and work, at least part of their time, in San Diego.

I doubt many San Diegans outside of the local biotech and academic communities know they are surrounded by seven scientists of such world-class caliber. Nor are they probably aware of the enormous scientific and technological progress these Nobel Laureates have contributed to improving the welfare of millions of people worldwide.

In his will Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite and a global industrial magnate, left his considerable estate to fund the creation of the Nobel Foundation and stipulated that cash awards in the form of prizes were to be given each year to individuals who have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

Specifically, the prizes honor those individuals who “made the most important discovery or invention” in one of six human endeavors: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, the promotion of peace, and economics (added in 1968).

Below is a brief review of the accomplishments of the four Nobel Laureates honored that evening.

First Glimpses Of A New World

Perhaps one of the most famous of recent Nobel Laureates is Francis Crick, thanks in small part to the “The Double Helix,” a spellbinding account of scientific discovery, written by Crick’s co-discoverer, James Watson.

In 1953, Crick and Watson discovered the molecular structure of DNA, the molecule that carries our genes and determines everything from the color of our eyes to the shape of our fingernails.

Their work established a then radical new branch of science: molecular biology, which led the way for the early detection of genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anemia, and for new scientific leaps such as animal cloning. Although the names Crick and Watson are synonymous with the discovery of DNA’s structure, they actually shared their Nobel Prize with another colleague, Maurice Wilkins.

In presenting the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1962, professor A. Engstrom of the Royal Caroline Institute said: “We can, through (your) discovery … see the first glimpse of a new world. Your discovery of the molecular structure of DNA is of the utmost importance for our understanding of one of the most vital biological processes. Practically all the scientific disciplines in the life sciences have felt the great impact of your discovery.”

Today, Crick is president emeritus, distinguished research professor of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and conducts theoretical research on the brain.

To my knowledge there has never been a Nobel Laureate who surfs, that was, until Kary Mullis entered this privileged society.

In 1993, Mullis received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Michael Smith for his contributions to the developments of methods within DNA-based chemistry, furthering the rapid development of genetic engineering. Specifically, Mullis was recognized for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

Night Drive Through The Mountains

Mullis has described with poetic poignancy how he came upon the idea for PCR one night while driving through the mountains of northern California.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted the numerous and growing applications of Mullis’ PCR method: “It is, for example, possible using simple equipment to multiply a given DNA segment from a complicated genetic material millions of times in a few hours, which is of very great significance for biochemical and genetic research.”

PCR technology has not only revolutionized genetics research, it has also had a profound effect on forensic medicine. With high probability, PCR can establish the real father in a paternity suit or the rapist or murderer in a criminal case. Moreover, stealing a scene from the movie “Jurassic Park,” researchers using the PCR method on fossils can even produce DNA from extinct animals that lived millions of years ago.

These days, Mullis writes and consults.

At The Creation Of Cell Biology

If you peruse college biology textbooks from more than 30 years ago, you may notice an interesting omission. The author or authors discuss the cell and its various components but not how these components function and interact within the cell. That’s because, as a rule, they were unknown and the subject of much debate at the time.

Enter George Palade. Among his many accomplishments, Palade discovered and described small granular components now known as ribosomes covering the outside of membranes and showed that they carry out the protein synthesis in the cell. His work also includes many other important structural-functional analyses of different cellular components.

In 1974, Palade received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with co-recipients Albert Claude and Christian de Duve for discoveries concerning the structure and organization of the cell. In three short decades the contributions of these three scientists established a new discipline, cell biology.

As the Royal Caroline Institute noted, the inner workings of the cell are now understood to be “a system of great organizational sophistication with units for the production of components essential to life and units for disposal of worn-out parts and for defense against foreign organisms and substances.”

Palade is professor of medicine in residence in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at UCSD and dean for Scientific Affairs.

A Household Word To His Credit

A lucky few may win a Nobel Prize but how many Nobel Laureates can boast of popularizing a household word? French-born U.S. endocrinologist Roger Guillemin retains both distinctions.

Considered the father of neuroendocrinology, Guillemin isolated and identified various hormones, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1977, together with his co-worker Andrew Schally and physicist Rosalyn Yalow.

He also discovered endorphins, a naturally occurring substance in the brain which lowers the perception of pain by reducing the transmission of signals between nerve cells. In today’s exercise-crazed society, it’s one of those few scientific words that has crossed over into popular usage.

In his award-winning work, Guillemin found the brain controls the pituitary gland by means of hormones produced by central neurons , the neurosecretory cells of the hypothalamus. Between 1968 and 1973 Guillemin and Schally isolated and synthesized three hypothalamic hormones which regulate the secretion of the anterior pituitary gland.

Officially retired, Guillemin remains a distinguished professor of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

A New Epitaph

It’s probably an apocryphal tale but I once read an interesting account of why Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Foundation. According to this story, he awoke one morning in 1864 and read his own obituary in the newspaper. The article was only half-right: a Nobel had died in a nitroglycerine explosion, but it was Alfred’s brother Emil.

As the story goes, reading the obituary had a profound effect on Nobel, causing him to rethink and redirect his life. No longer would he be remembered as an industrialist and arms dealer. (By 1867 he invented a material for construction work called dynamite, but it quickly found military uses.) Instead, his legacy would be centered on promoting peace, science and literature.

As one reads the accomplishments of the Nobel Laureates above, one wonders what Alfred Nobel would think of his century-old legacy. If I had to make a guess, I’d say he would be satisfied beyond his wildest dreams.

Rastetter is the chairman, president and chief executive officer of Idec Pharmaceuticals.


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