National Institutes of Health Grantees Win 2003 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Award for Discoveries Concerning Channels in Cell Membranes
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NIH-funded basic scientists Peter Agre, M.D., and Roderick MacKinnon, M.D., have won the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry for advancing knowledge about cellular membrane channels — passageways that control the movement of molecules across cell membranes. Over the past two decades, NIH has awarded a total of nearly $17 million to the prize-winning scientists.

"Each of the trillion cells in our bodies maintains strict border control on what goes in and out through molecular channels," said NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. "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."

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm announced the chemistry prize winners this morning. Agre, professor of biological chemistry at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, received half the prize for "the discovery of water channels." MacKinnon, professor of molecular neurobiology and biophysics at The Rockefeller University in New York City, 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 the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the National Eye Institute (NEI) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Agre's major contribution was the discovery of the first water channel, which he determined through experiments with genetically modified isolated cells. Nearly three-quarters of the body is made up of water, and the ability to move water within and among cells is one of the fundamental keys to sustaining life. Since that original discovery, ten different water channels, called aquaporins, have been identified.

Since 1990, MacKinnon received almost $5.9 million from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). His ingenuity and perseverance led him to unravel the three-dimensional structure of ion channels using bacteria as a model system. 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 the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR).

Further study of membrane proteins is one of the highlights of the recently announced NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, a strategic effort to transform the nation’s medical research capabilities and speed the movement of scientific discoveries from the bench to the bedside.

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

Agre received a B.A. in chemistry in 1970 from Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1974, he earned an M.D. from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he has been a faculty member since 1984.

MacKinnon came to basic research at the age of 30 after an early career in medicine. In 1978, he received a B.A. in biochemistry from Brandeis University in Boston, Massachusetts, and in 1982, he earned an M.D. from Tufts University, also in Boston. After completing a residency, MacKinnon returned to Brandeis for postdoctoral research. He has been a professor at Rockefeller since 1996.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders (NIDDK) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) also contributed to the funding of these researchers.

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

The NIH, which is comprised of 27 institutes and centers, is an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services.