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Nobel Prize for Chemistry

October 9, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: This year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry went to three scientists: Kurt Wuethrich of Switzerland; Koichi Tanaka of Japan; and an American, John Fenn. The Nobel Committee cited them for developing ways of identifying and analyzing large molecules, like proteins. The new methods, the Nobel Committee said, "have revolutionized the development of new pharmaceuticals," and hold promise for early detection of breast and prostate cancer. With us now is the American winner, John Fenn, who will share the $1 million prize with the other winners. At 85, he’s currently a research professor of chemistry and engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Welcome, Professor Fenn, and congratulations.

JOHN B. FENN, Nobel Prize for Chemistry: Thanks very much.

MARGARET WARNER: How did you hear the news? Were you surprised?

JOHN B. FENN: The traditional telephone call at 5:30 this morning. My wife picked up the phone and she came and hollered to me, "Stockholm is calling!" So… I had watched the program that you have yesterday and knew that the physicists had gotten their Nobel Prize, and so Stockholm calling at this time of year could have meant only one thing. That’s what it was. I’m still in a state of shock.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m glad we helped prepare you. The committee, as we just said, cited you and the other winners for your work in developing new ways of weighing molecules of proteins. Tell us in layman’s terms why is it important to be able to weigh these proteins, these molecules?

JOHN B. FENN: Well, the weight or mass of a protein molecule is a very important characteristic of its identity. So getting their mass is the first step toward identifying them.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what is it about your method that you developed that added something new? What did your work… what does your work enable researchers to do they weren’t able to do before?

JOHN B. FENN: Well, in homely terms, we learned how to make elephants fly, as it were. These huge big molecules cannot be put into the gas phase as vapors or gases without catastrophic decomposition. If you’ve ever tried to distill an egg out of a frying pan, you know you can’t do it. It just decomposes in carbon. So by tricking them, we are able to get them into the gas phase and then into the vacuum. Once we get them into the vacuum with charges on them, we can use the very old art of mass spectrometry of determining their masses. And having determined their masses, we can take the next step and bring about collisions and break them up into their component pieces, usually short pieces of protein or even as far down as the amino acids of which all proteins are compromised. So you accumulate all this information and refer to great libraries of information, and we can identify almost any molecule rather quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: So how did this lead, as the Nobel Committee said, to revolutionary developments in new medicines, in new pharmaceuticals?

JOHN B. FENN: Well, in a new… in any new medicine… for example as you know the Food and Drug Administration requires lengthy trials in which animals and human beings are given the medicine, and then they have to determine what happens to the body when these medicines are taken. And so there are great batteries of tests, analytical procedures, analyzing all the body fluids– blood, saliva, urine– and seeing what the metabolites of these drugs are– that is, the pieces that the body makes out of them when they operate on them in their various chemical processes. And then we have to see how long these metabolites stay in the body, what it takes for the body to get rid of them, and how completely the body gets rid of them, and so all of these steps require fairly intricate analyses. It just so happens that this so- called electro spray mass spectrometry greatly speeds up and increases the accuracy of these analyses, and so most of the work using this technique is being used in drug companies today.

MARGARET WARNER: And then how will your method contribute to fighting cancer or detecting… early detection of cancer?

JOHN B. FENN: Well, when the body has a cancerous growth somewhere, there are frequently particular chemicals that are associated with that body which get released into the bloodstream. And so if one has a sensitive enough method of analysis, one can sometimes say somewhere in the body there is a cancer because we see this particular compound.

MARGARET WARNER: How did you get interested in chemistry to start with?

JOHN B. FENN: Well, to start with, I had a wonderful teacher when I was a freshman in college and took his chemistry course. And he made the subject live. And so, I got bitten.

MARGARET WARNER: Then have you always found the research end of it fascinating?

JOHN B. FENN: As a matter of fact, no. The research I did for my degree in graduate school was very dull, and I wanted no part of it. But I went and worked in industry for a few years, and then for a variety of reasons got back into academia, and by that time, I had more interesting problems to work on than I had for my Ph.D. thesis, and it has been lots of fun and excitement ever since.

MARGARET WARNER: And at age 85, you are still doing research and teaching research.

JOHN B. FENN: Well, put it this way — I go to the lab every day. Whether I accomplish much in the way of research, I don’t know. But we are working on problems, and I try to encourage students to look at this or look at that or look at the other thing, and I get a lot of nourishment from their young red blood cells. I’m a vampire, essentially.

MARGARET WARNER: And will winning this prize change your life in any way?

JOHN B. FENN: It already changed it. I’ve been on the telephone all day long. I don’t know. I mean, I’ve never been through this before, but I guess it will.

MARGARET WARNER: And have you decided on what you’re going to do with your prize winnings?

JOHN B. FENN: No, the only thing I know I’m going to go do, the only thing I am going to do is pay income tax on it. But what I’ll do after the tax is paid, I have no idea. I’ve not thought about it yet. I’ve got plenty of time before I have it in my pocket anyway.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Fenn, thank you so much and again, congratulations.

JOHN B. FENN: Well thank you very much.