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Americans win Nobel in chemistry for cell research

By Associated Press
Published October 9, 2003

STOCKHOLM, Sweden - Americans Peter Agre and Roderick MacKinnon won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for studies of tiny transportation tunnels in cell walls, work that illuminates diseases of the heart, kidneys and nervous system.

Agre, 54, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, discovered in 1988 the "channels" that let water pass in and out of cells, the Royal Swedish Academy said.

MacKinnon, 47, did key studies of the structure and workings of channels that transport charged particles called ions through cell walls. He is with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the Rockefeller University in New York.

Ion and water channels are key to such crucial activities as making the heart beat, the brain function and the limbs move. When channels malfunction, the result can cause such conditions as cystic fibrosis, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, some forms of paralysis and a disease called diabetes insipidus, which is marked by extreme thirst and heavy urination. Not surprisingly, ion channels are important drug targets for the pharmaceutical industry.

"The major impact (of the research) has been on understanding disease, perhaps not yet treating disease," said Gunnar von Heijne, a member of the Nobel Committee for chemistry.

Because of Agre's work, researchers can follow in detail a water molecule on its way through the cell wall and understand why only water, not other small molecules or ions, can pass, the academy said.

Reached at his home, Agre said: "I'm jubilant. I'm overwhelmed, frankly. One doesn't plan to have this sort of thing happen.... Deep down in your heart a scientist will always dream about something like this."

Ion channels let cells generate and transmit electrical signals, and so are key to letting nerve cells communicate, for example. In 1998, MacKinnon determined the first detailed structure of an ion channel, a technically challenging achievement.

MacKinnon's work was "an exceptional breakthrough," said Raymond Frizzell, chair of the department of cell biology and physiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Rockefeller University spokeswoman Lynn Love said Wednesday that MacKinnon was out of town and not immediately available. Sir Paul Nurse, president of Rockefeller University, said that he spoke to MacKinnon by phone and that the award was "a real shock and surprise for him."

The pair will share a check for 10-million kronor, or $1.3-million.

Nobel Foundation statutes stipulate that no more than three winners can share a prize and the scientific committees often choose the maximum number, finding it hard to single out researchers. Often the awards are given for discoveries made after decades of research.

Nobel gave little guidance other than to say the chemistry prize should go to those who "shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" and "shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement."

The Nobel Peace Prize is to be announced Friday. The medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peace prizes were first awarded in 1901. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was established separately in 1968 by the Swedish central bank, but it is grouped with the other awards.

The prizes are presented to the winners on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.


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