|NOBEL PRIZE FOR MEDICINE|
October 11, 1999
A Newsmaker interview with scientist GŁnter Blobel, whose studies of the origins and effects of hereditary diseases won him the 1999 Nobel Prize for Medicine.
GWEN IFILL: The Nobel committee said today that the work of this year's
winner in medicine has "had an immense impact on modern cell biological
research, and has helped explain the molecular mechanisms behind several
genetic diseases." The man cited is Dr. Günter Blobel of Rockefeller
University in New York. He joins us now.
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL, Nobel Prize, Medicine: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: We've just heard what the Nobel Committee had to say about your work but what do you consider to be the significance of the work that you have done which earned you this prize today?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Well, it tries to address the issues that are basic to how the cell works. And in order to understand what is wrong with cancer cells and what the AIDS virus can do to cells and what happens in cells that are afflicted by Alzheimer's, we have to first learn how a normal cell works in order to understand the pathological condition, because all disease is based on cellular diseases. So we have to learn much more about the cell before we can successfully treat many, many diseases.
GWEN IFILL: And so, Dr. Blobel, your role has basically been of that of a detective hunting down the building blocks of protein research. Is that a correct description?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Yes. What we have really developed is an idea and have proven that it is correct that there is a peptide called for the structural and functional organization of the cell, that is, that each protein has a sequence in it, a code, that directs the protein to the proper address in the cell. And if that code or the machinery which sees that code is not functioning properly, then the protein is not sent to the correct address in the cell and, therefore, it does not function properly.
GWEN IFILL: Kind of like a molecular zip code?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: It is a molecular zip code, if you wish. Very much like in the mail.
GWEN IFILL: Very much like in the mail. So you need to know the address where you're heading.
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Yes. You need to know your address, you have to have a zip code. It's not alone you need the zip code. You also need the mail sorters, you need motors, you need tracks, you need tunnels, you need channels. You need essentially everything that we're used to thinking in terms of sending things from one place to another. And all of these things have been discovered.
|Paving the way for cures?|
GWEN IFILL: You said this is not necessarily the cure for Alzheimer's or other familiar diseases but it does have a practical effect on diseases like cystic fibrosis, for instance?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Well, cystic fibrosis is a case where a protein is not moving to the right address in the cell. It is not...it is actually functional, it has a mutation in the protein. And the protein fails to move to the correct address in the cell. So this is one example of misdirected protein traffic. But there are many others.
GWEN IFILL: Give us a couple of other examples that we would recognize.
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Well, there are many diseases, for instance, in cholesterol, metabolism, the receptor, which is important for cholesterol uptake in the cell. There are many of these signal sequences in this receptor, which direct the receptor throughout the cell, and if there are mutations, then the receptor is not properly directed anymore, and that may then result in arteriosclerosis.
GWEN IFILL: And you can basically tell what is a genetic predisposition, for instance?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Well, yes, if we know the sequence of the DNA, we will also know the sequence of the protein and we will know what could go wrong in its traffic pattern in the cell -- now that we understand what the traffic patterns are - are like.
GWEN IFILL: And also there's a relation to things like the procreation of insulin.
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Absolutely. A lot of proteins that are being used for treatment like insulin, like growth hormone, like Arithriprotein, I mentioned; these are drugs, or proteins that are produced in large quantities in bacteria or in yeast cells. And they use this address system to get these proteins out of the cell and to produce them in very large quantities. To give you an example, Arithroprotein was sold last year in the United States -- $2 billion worth of Arithroprotein. So it is...
GWEN IFILL: $2 billion?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Yes, $2 billion.
GWEN IFILL: So there's a market factor in this as well?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: There's a market factor as well.
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about making the connection between finding these proteins and addresses and actual, specific defects you can correct, is there a connection there?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Yes. That connection has to wait a bit. I mean, the development of drugs can only come once you understand the basic mechanisms. And we are at the level now that we understand many of the basic mechanisms of protein traffic within the cell but we haven't understood them all yet. We are working, for instance, on traffic between the nucleus and the cytoplasm, and we are far from understanding how this traffic is regulated and how it works. So there is some, a considerable amount of work which still has to be done to exploit this and to develop the drugs, to interfere, for instance, in AIDS virus infections, or in Herpes virus infections, or in many other diseases.
|A scientist's life's work|
GWEN IFILL: You have spent 20 years developing this research. How did you come to this work?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: When I came to the Rockefeller University, my mentor, George Balata, had already used the electron microscope to describe many, many structures in the cell and postulated several theories of how proteins move in the cell and what wasn't known is the molecular basis. He received the Nobel Prize for his work and I, as his student, tried to solve the molecular mechanism of how proteins move in the cell and we succeeded in doing that, at least in part I would say.
GWEN IFILL: Well, over the years there's been some skepticism about your work. Do you feel vindicated now?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: I do.
GWEN IFILL: In what way?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Well, there was a particular aspect of it, for instance, a channel that we postulated that proteins travel across membranes, and that was a concept that was not easily accepted. But eventually we managed to show the existence of such a channel, which is made of proteins, for other proteins to go across.
GWEN IFILL: So, I gather, you were dead asleep when you got the notification of your prize?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: I was. I was. Actually, my wife answered the phone and said, "What is it all about? My husband is asleep", and they told her "I'm calling from Sweden", and then she understood that it may be something important.
GWEN IFILL: She picked up on the Sweden reference, did she? What impact, if any, will your receiving this prize have on your work?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: It will continue. It will continue, I hope, unabated -- now that I'm no longer a private person, I've become a public figure as I noticed today, it will hopefully not have an impact on my work. I'm too excited about the work. I hope that I can fend off attempts to make me into a public figure.
GWEN IFILL: Well, maybe does it give you a leaping off point to be able to go further with your work than you would have been able to otherwise?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: No, I have been well supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and I think I can continue and it would not really impact my work very much, I think.
GWEN IFILL: So you plan on going back underground after all of the hoopla has died down?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Absolutely. I'm looking forward to it.
GWEN IFILL: Well, we'll miss you after this. Along with this prize goes a $960,000 cash award, and you've already decided what you're going to do with it.
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: I'm glad that you asked me. I'm going to give it to the reconstruction of two monuments in Dresden; one is the Frauenkirche one of the most important monuments north of the Alps - Baroque churches -- that was destroyed in the war that is being rebuilt. And I founded an organization called Friends of Dresden in the United States, which is trying to raise money for the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, for an American wing of the Frauenkirche. We think this is a very important contribution to the United States to the reconstruction of this church. We also are collecting funds, and some of my prize will be dedicated to the reconstruction of the synagogue in Dresden, which was burned down by the Nazis in 1939. Finally, some money will go for the restoration of a monument in Fubine, Piemonte, Italy where my wife has... her parents grew up and where we have a house and where we would like to do something for the community.
GWEN IFILL: You've won other prizes before. I take it this is where your prize money as gone in the past as well?
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Some of my prize money, last prize money I got from the King Faisal award from Saudi Arabia went to Dresden as well.
GWEN IFILL: Congratulations very much, Dr. Blobel. We'll be talking to you whether you want to be on the ground or not again soon.
DR. GÜNTER BLOBEL: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you.