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Three Grantees Win Nobel Prizes

Three long-time grantees of NIH were awarded Nobel Prizes in 2003: Dr. Paul C. Lauterbur shared the prize in physiology or medicine with Britain's Sir Peter Mansfield for discoveries launching the field of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and Drs. Peter Agre and Roderick MacKinnon — who over the past two decades have received nearly $17 million in NIH funding — shared the chemistry prize.


Dr. Roderick MacKinnon
(courtesy Howard Hughes Medical Institute)
Lauterbur — who is Center for Advanced Study professor of chemistry, biophysics and computational biology and bioengineering, distinguished university professor of medical information sciences and professor, Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — got most of his funding from the National Center for Research Resources. He was also supported by the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Institute of Mental Health.

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, who has also conducted pioneering MRI research, said of Lauterbur's award: "This is a wonderful example of how basic research on atoms and molecules led to an important clinical application. The ability to see inside the body in unprecedented detail revolutionized the practice of medicine. It improves diagnosis and reduces the need for surgery or other invasive procedures, underscoring how NIH-supported research translates into advances that improve medical care."

He continued, "Dr. Lauterbur, using advanced technologies and instruments, helped usher MRI from its earliest beginnings nearly three decades ago into the widely used diagnostic tool now found in hospitals and research centers nationwide."

Of the 81 American Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine since 1945, 62 either worked at or were funded by NIH before winning the prize.

Agre and MacKinnon won the chemistry prize for advancing knowledge about cellular membrane channels — passageways that control the movement of molecules across cell membranes. "Each of the trillion cells in our bodies maintains strict border control on what goes in and out through molecular channels," said Zerhouni. "The role of channels in the body is so critical that we would not be alive were it not for the vigilance of these gateways in maintaining healthy cells. NIH-supported research in this area will no doubt continue to deepen understanding of the molecular roots of disease as well as fuel the discovery of new medicines to treat a wide variety of health disorders."

Agre, professor of biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, received half the prize for "the discovery of water channels." MacKinnon, professor of molecular neurobiology and biophysics at the Rockefeller University, received half of this year's chemistry award for his work on "structural and mechanistic studies of ion channels."

Since 1981, Agre received nearly $11.1 million combined from NHLBI, the National Eye Institute and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Since 1990, MacKinnon received almost $5.9 million from NIGMS. His studies of ion channels relied on his having ready access to the shared instrumentation, technologies and expertise available at several biomedical technology centers supported by NCRR.

"The achievements of both scientists reflect great determination in working with membrane proteins, which are notoriously difficult to study in the lab," said Zerhouni. "It is this kind of innovative research that NIH is proud to sponsor and hopes to encourage through the NIH Roadmap initiatives."

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders also contributed to the funding of these researchers.

Since 1954, NIH has supported the work of 32 Nobel laureates in chemistry.


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