Neurologist Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner

The award-winning physician explains his journey from pariah to prophet and discusses a possible breakthrough for understanding Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner's contributions to scientific research have been recognized internationally with numerous awards, including the prestigious Nobel Prize. His discovery of what he coined "prions"—infectious proteins that cause neurodegenerative diseases in animals and humans—was once considered heresy, but now stands as accepted science and the basis for developing diagnoses and eventual cures. A neurology professor and director of the UC San Francisco Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Prusiner is editor of 12 books and author of more than 350 research articles. He also holds 50 issued or allowed U.S. patents, all of which are assigned to the University of California.


Tavis: The road to a scientific breakthrough can be fraught with enough drama to give even the best spy novel a run for its money.

Nobel Laureate Stanley Prusiner, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine back in 1997 and is now the director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco, has written a new memoir, a text titled “Madness and Memory: The Discovery of Prions-A New Biological Principle of Disease” which reveals his dramatic journey from pariah to prophet as he correctly challenged everything that the scientific community thought that they knew about pathogens leading the way, for that matter, for what eventually might become a breakthrough for treatments like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other forms of dementia.

So Dr. Prusiner, we owe you a thank-you for your persistence when they told you you were wrong.

Dr. Stanley Prusiner: Well, thank you.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you on this program to talk about it.

Prusiner: Thank you.

Tavis: I want to get to your work about prions and what the hope is for finding cures for these illnesses and diseases in a moment. But your book is fascinating because it’s a really interest sort of inside account of the fact that scientific breakthrough can be both collaborative, but also pretty cutthroat. And I’m not sure that the uninformed, the uninitiated like me, knew how cutthroat this can be.

Prusiner: Well, I think cutthroat may not be the perfect word to describe this. I think that people in science work very hard and they have a problem. And their problem is that only one person, one group, can discover a new breakthrough.

Now if on the other hand people are working very hard, they’re not making big discoveries, they’re making small advances and someone comes along and says, oh, you know, our thinking has been wrong in this particular area. Our thinking has not been quite correct, then they offer something which is radically different and a lot of people get upset. And I think I understand this very well now, but at the time, it was very hard.

Tavis: It seems to me that, if a scientist is going to be true to what his or her calling and profession is really all about, you have to be willing to be wrong. So why get upset when somebody says, you know what, our thinking on this has been wrong if it’s ultimately about trying to get it right?

Prusiner: Well, that’s how I thought, just like you said [laugh] and I was surprised that scientists turn out to be as conservative as I think they are in general. But I think that comes from the fact that everybody’s working very hard.

The competitive nature of science is good in many respects ’cause it pushes people to work hard; it pushes them to publish as fast as they can so they don’t sit on new data and new findings. They put them out there when they feel reasonably certain about them.

So I think all of that conspires in a way to create an atmosphere that sometimes makes the acceptance of new things or at least considering new things an unpleasant and sometimes irritating experience.

Tavis: What do you say to the viewer right now who has experienced or will experience what I and others have experienced which is that, when you’re confronting a particular problem, it is frustrating oftentimes for those of us who are not scientists to know what the right choice or decision to make is, say, about a health challenge because the science on it is all over the place?

Now I understand getting a second opinion, a third opinion or a fourth opinion. We can do that. But how do we live and navigate our way through a world where we read something one day about Issue X and then, two weeks later, we read something diametrically different about Issue X, but it’s all coming from the scientific community?

That’s more than just be willing to admit that you’re wrong. It’s somewhat confusing for those of us who have to read your research when it changes every couple of days. I’m overstating the point, but you…

Prusiner: Right, yes. No, I understand that and I understand that dealing with lots of change is difficult. I think scientists – at least my argument is that the best scientists like change. They like new things and I think that’s a very important quality in scientists that they do enjoy the new and, if they don’t, I’m not sure that they’re well suited for doing scientific research. So that’s just a part of scientific research which is, I think, at the heart of it is discovery.

So I understand that, and then when you start to talk about clinical medicine, though, and issues for people who are not in the medical field, I think what you have to do is you have to find a good primary care doctor. You have to find a doctor who is going to be your quarterback, who is going to navigate, who runs your health team and navigate for you because it’s too technical. You can’t do it.

I would say that, in the financial world, a guy like me, if I’m sitting around picking stocks, something’s wrong. This is, A, not a good use of my time, but, B, I don’t know enough about it to be intelligent. So I have to get somebody to help me. We live in a very specialized world now.

Tavis: Speaking of the fact that we live in a specialized world, before I go to these prions here, this is a big question. I apologize for it in advance, but I’m curious as to your take, given that you are a Nobel Laureate.

What’s your sense of how cutting edge we are being as Americans, how we are leading or not leading across the board with scientific discoveries on all sorts of matters? Are you pleased with the progress of the things that we are discovering as American scientists?

Prusiner: Well, I think the United States is doing great science, but I think that the funding mechanisms are really antiquated, particularly the federal funding mechanisms. And we need to revise, overhaul, whatever you want to call it, the great funding mechanisms that in the past served science well, but now…

Tavis: What’s wrong with them?

Prusiner: Well, first of all, there’s not enough funding for all of the scientists. Now do we have too many scientists? That’s an important national debate. Secondly, I would argue that we have these horrible diseases. We’ve made a lot of progress at getting at them and beginning to alleviate them.

But there’s so much more to do that I would argue that we need to put more of our resources into particularly biomedical science and in the physical sciences because all of these interact. I mean, the huge advances in computational power have radically changed with the biological sciences both in imaging of the body and the head, of data collection, data analysis.

So there is this incredible interplay between the physical and biological sciences and we need to support this better because there are so many diseases that afflict human beings and make their lives horrible and make their families’ lives horrible and we need to change this. It’s within our power to do so as human beings.

Tavis: Let me close on this question because I will never in my life have this experience, but you have had it and we will see what comes of these prions in the months and years to come.

But if something that you discovered for which you won a Nobel Prize for, if that in fact does turn out to be critical to curing and treating these diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, how do you emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, process how your gift was used during your lifetime?

Prusiner: Wow, that’s a tough question [laugh]. I think – you know, I went into medicine because I was interested in helping people. I thought this was a socially wonderful thing to be able to do. I got excited about research.

I couldn’t believe it when I learned that you actually could get paid to solve puzzles as a research scientist. And I’ve spent my whole life doing this and I’m reasonably good at it. And I guess I’ll feel this is great. It’s just another piece along the way of having this privilege to try to understand these horrible afflictions of people.

So I’m not sure that I’ll jump up and cheer. I’ll be very happy, but I’ve been really blessed, if you want to use that word. That’s not a good word for a scientist to use. Privileged is probably a better one in being able to do what I do.

Tavis: Why don’t we say both and, not either or.

Prusiner: Okay [laugh].

Tavis: We’ll take both of those. The book is called “Madness and Memory: The Discovery of Prions-A New Biological Principle of Disease” which weaves in a good bit of the story of the work that Dr. Prusiner’s been doing which you might find of interest.

Not to say the least, that if these prions turn out to be as hopeful as we expect they will be, then this is something we will all celebrate about. And you might not be jumping up and down, but anybody who’s had somebody in their family with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, they certainly will be.

Prusiner: Absolutely.

Tavis: So let me thank you in advance for your work.

Prusiner: You’re very welcome.

Tavis: It’s good to have you on.

Prusiner: Thank you for having me.

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Last modified: July 30, 2014 at 12:07 pm