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Nobel Prize Winners

October 8, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Today’s prize went to two American scientists for their discoveries of small channels that let vital substances move through cell walls. Peter Agre, 54, was honored for discovering the channels, called aquaporins, that let water pass in and out of cells. And Roderick MacKinnon, 47, won for his study of channels that transport ions, or salts, through cell walls. Both kinds of channels are important to the function of the kidneys, heart, and brain, among other things. Dr. Agre is a professor of biological chemistry and medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He joins us tonight from Baltimore. Welcome, Dr. Agre and first of all congratulations.

DR. PETER AGRE: Well, thank you very much, Ms. Warner. It’s quite an astonishing and delightful day and it’s very good to be on the NewsHour. Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, how did you hear the news?

DR. PETER AGRE: Well I was sleeping at 5:30 this morning, the telephone rang, and it was a very light voice with a Swedish accent. A gentleman introduced him as the secretary of the chemistry committee of the Nobel Prize — and congratulated me which I was convinced it was real. It didn’t seem to be a prank and obviously I erupted in jubilation — awakening my daughter.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sure your family was thrilled but I gather your mother had an interesting reaction.

DR. PETER AGRE: Mothers know their children well even at the age of 54. Mary, my wife, called my mother, who’s living outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, grew up in Minnesota and her first reaction when Mary told her, Peter is sharing the noble prize, that’s very nice, I hope it doesn’t go to his head.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us in as simple terms as you can the basic concept behind your finding.

DR. PETER AGRE: Well the cells in our bodies are each primarily filled with water. Our bodies are about two-thirds water in bulk. So the organization and distribution of water between cells and tissues is carefully organized and this is true of humans as well as other vertebrates, invertebrates, bacteria and plants. So the proteins we discover the aquaporins allow water to rapidly cross cell membranes during the process of osmosis which we all learned about in middle school. Aquaporins really allow water to go where it needs to go very rapidly. It’s sort of a molecular or cellular form of plumbing.

MARGARET WARNER: I gather that… first of all you were only 39 when you made this discovery and there was a bit of luck or serendipity involved. Can you explain the process, what happened –

DR. PETER AGRE: There was a lot of luck involved. We in fact, I’m a blood specialist. I was seeing patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital as part of the hematology division studying the RH blood group and the gene which is important in maternal fetal incompatibilities and were making good progress. We isolated the H.R. Protein and a contaminating protein copurified.

MARGARET WARNER: It did what?

DR. PETER AGRE: It was unrelated to RH — a contaminating protein and the protein had interesting characteristics being very abundant kidney and expected it would have an important function, we cloned it out expressed and found it allowed water to cross cell membranes incredibly fast; it was, in fact, the water channel physiologists had been looking for for really a long time.

MARGARET WARNER: How did you first get interested in chemistry?

DR. PETER AGRE: My dad was a chemistry professor at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and at a college where I attended. He always encouraged us to consider the sciences, medicine in particular, chemistry as careers but like a typical adolescent I didn’t listen too carefully but in college it became clear current medicine would be a wonderful thing. It’s really because of my interest in medicine and human disease I got involved in these studies.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us what you told your press conference today not only that you weren’t that interested in high school but done the do very well in chemistry.

DR. PETER AGRE: I didn’t do very well in a lot of things, actually my senior year in high school. I think this was more a lack of maturity than anything else. I was very interested in the underground newspaper my friends and I were putting out. I guess my mother would have been well advised to have told me then not to let that to go to my head. I dropped out of high school and the grade listed was sort of a gift. I believe it was a D.

MARGARET WARNER: A gift of a D.

DR. PETER AGRE: I’m trying hard to compensate.

MARGARET WARNER: You seem to be doing pretty well. What can this discovery of yours and also Mr. MacKinnon’s lead to, sort of medically, clinically practically?

DR. PETER AGRE: In the short-term it’s not obvious within the next calendar year we’re going to be able to treat diseases differently, but knowledge is often very important to the development of new therapeutics and I think they’re very good indications, certainly doctor MacKinnon’s work on the ion channels that arrhythmias of heart, different neurological functions, may benefit from drug therapies, we can identify inhibitors or stimulators of the some of the ion channels and the same is true of the water channels.

There is work now for many laboratories, we’re simply involved early on but there are laboratories throughout the United States, Japan, Europe and South America looking at these and the hopes that we can make better therapies for serious problems like brain edema, cataracts, glaucoma and a variety of kidney disease, the fluid overload of congestive heart failure or pregnancy; these are all problems related to aquaporins, and we’re hopeful — maybe not in the near term but certainly in the health of children and grandchildren positively affected by this.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly before we go, how will winning this prize – and half of the $1.3 million change your life?

DR. PETER AGRE: Well, I’m not sure it will change it entirely. Our laboratory like many labs is dependent upon the NIH and NSF funding; these are taxpayer dollars and we have to write grants and if you don’t write a good grant you won’t get funded. I don’t expect that to change. I guess I’ll have to be a little more careful when I say things because people might take it more seriously. I’m dreading next year when my ninth grade daughter takes high school chemistry that she will expect me to know the answer.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Dr. Peter Agre, thanks so much, and congratulations.

DR. PETER AGRE: Thank you. It’s a great privilege and an honor.