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NIH Record

NIH Grantees Awarded Nobel Prizes

Two long-time NIH grantees recently won Nobel Prizes. Dr. Stanley Prusiner of the University of California, San Francisco, received the 1997 Nobel in physiology or medicine for his discovery of an unusual class of infectious particles called prions. Dr. Paul Boyer of the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of three recipients of the 1997 Nobel in chemistry.

A grantee of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke since 1975, Prusiner is a professor of neurology, virology and biochemistry at UCSF. He led the work that uncovered the nature of prions (a term he coined from "proteinaceous infectious particles"), which are believed to be responsible for a group of diseases that include "mad cow" disease. Prions are unusual infectious particles because, unlike viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites, they contain no DNA or RNA. Instead, they are a type of protein normally found within cells in human and other organisms. In some cases, however, the structure of prions can change into a disease-causing form. These abnormal proteins appear to convert other, normal prions to the abnormal shape. Many scientists now believe this conversion process leads to several dementing diseases in humans, including Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Similar diseases in animals include bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow" disease) in cattle and scrapie in sheep. Prusiner also received funding from the National Institute on Aging, the National Center for Research Resources, and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Boyer, a UCLA biochemistry professor emeritus, has received grant support from NIH since 1948. The vast majority of the more than $4.4 million he has received came from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, with additional funding from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. He and Dr. John E. Walker of Cambridge, England, shared half of the Nobel in chemistry "for their elucidation of the enzymatic mechanism underlying the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP)." The other half of the chemistry prize went to Dr. Jens C. Skou of Aarhus University in Denmark for "the first discovery of an ion-transporting enzyme, sodium potassium-stimulated adenosine triphosphatase." Skou received grant money from NINDS in the early 1960's.

Since the early 1950's, Boyer has sought to understand the inner workings of ATP synthase, the enzyme he calls the "splendid molecular machine" that produces ATP. He developed a model of how the various subunits of the enzyme work together like gears, levers and ratchets to generate cellular energy. His theories were confirmed in 1994 with a detailed, three-dimensional structure of the enzyme determined by his Nobel co-winner Walker.


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