SRO for Prions
By Rich McManus
Photos by Ernie Branson
On the Front Page...
Fifteen minutes before he was to take the podium to deliver NIA's annual Florence Mahoney Lecture on Aging on Oct. 14, neurologist Dr. Stanley Prusiner, last year's winner of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, had drawn so large a crowd that people were turned away at the Masur Auditorium door.
Inside the hall, the atmosphere attained the sort of warmth NIH manages maybe half a dozen times a year. Precipitating conditions include a big-name visiting alumnus (Prusiner was a scientist in the heart institute from 1969 to 1972 -- a PHS assignment he elected "instead of fighting in Southeast Asia") speaking on a hot topic, and the proud reunion of senior staff (NIH deputy director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein welcomed Dr. Joe Gibbs of NINDS -- who helped lay the foundation for Prusiner's groundbreaking studies -- with an open-armed hug) who played a role in the speaker's success.
At precisely 3 p.m., Prusiner, bearing a tall diet cola and sporting a thick cumulus of white hair, walked into the hall with NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes who, upon arriving at the reserved seats down front, joked to a colleague along the lines of, "And you thought we'd have trouble filling the hall?"
Prusiner then launched into a talk -- "Prion Biology and Diseases: A Saga of Skeptical Scientists, Mad Cows, and Laughing Cannibals" -- that liberally credited his mentors, chiefly NHLBI's Dr. Earl Stadtman and NIMH's Dr. Louis Sokoloff, as well as a host of current NIH scientists including Drs. Ellis Kempner, Reed Wickner, Bruce Chesebro, Byron Caughey and others whose work is advancing the field.
"I consider NIH my second scientific home," said Prusiner, now professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. He said he received "a really great education" at Stadtman's lab in Bldg. 3 that included three major lessons: "First, Earl taught me how to do simple experiments... then, when you get a result, you have to prove it five, six, seven, eight different ways, not just one -- that's the second thing Earl taught me to do. Third, I learned to write scientific papers...The challenge is to delineate not only what you know -- everyone does that -- but also what you don't know. Explicitly stating what is uncertain allowed me to describe [the causative agent in scrapie]."
Ironically, Prusiner, whose prizewinning studies of prions (a new class of pathogens that replicate without DNA) was built on work done at NINDS by Gibbs and fellow Nobel laureate Dr. Carleton Gajdusek (who studied kuru and scrapie), says he "learned nothing about kuru at NIH" during his tenure as a clinical associate. "That's because Joe Gibbs and Carleton Gajdusek worked in Bldg. 36, and I was in Bldg. 3, which are a very great distance apart. I guess that's why I didn't know about their work." That comment drew chuckles from a crowd recently saturated in the campus-wide Research Festival.
Self-deprecating, low-key and funny, Prusiner presented a dense analysis of prion activity at the molecular level, positing five sites of possible treatment "interdiction" for a deadly pathogen that he first saw evidence of in a 60-year-old woman back in 1972. Those who missed his talk on Oct. 14 were able to see a rebroadcast on video Oct. 21 in Masur that included everything but the warm blush of the crowd.
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