AMERICANS WIN NOBEL IN
Associated Press, Tuesday, October 13, 1998
Three Americans won the
Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for discovering that the body uses nitric oxide
gas to make blood vessels relax and widen – a finding that helped lead to
Viagra and could also pay off in treatments for heart disease.
In addition, it has triggered research that could lead to new
treatments for cancer and septic shock.
The prize announced in Sweden, went to Robert F. Furchgott,
Louis J. Ignarro and Dr. Ferid Murad.
Furchgott, 82, is a pharmacologist at the State University of New
York Health Science Center at Brooklyn; Ignarro, 57, is at the University
of California at Los Angeles; and Murad, 62, is at the University of Texas
Medical School in Houston.
They will split the $978,000 prize.
Cells in the body make nitric oxide, which, paradoxically, is
also an air pollutant in auto exhaust.
It is different from nitrous oxide, better known as laughing
gas. The researchers discovered that
the body’s own nitric oxide acts as a signal, telling blood vessels to
dilate. That, in turn, lowers blood
The work already has inspired a treatment for dangerously high
blood pressure in the lungs of infants.
Babies breathe the gas.
“Now, finally this discovery can be put to use in treatment of
numerous pathologies,” said Ignarro, who was reached in Naples, Italy. “The future of pharmacology is in the
creation of a superaspirin that will be fundamental in the prevention of
heart attacks, of cardiovascular disease, of arteriosclerosis.”
Scientists were surprised when Furchgott and Ignarro reported
the findings in 1986. Nitric oxide
was the first gas to be identified as a signal in the body.
“It was a sensation that this simple common air
pollutant…could exert important functions” in animals and people, said the
Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, which awards the prize.
The gas makes blood vessels dilate by relaxing the vessels’ smooth
muscles. It can help trigger
erection of the penis the same way, because the relaxation lets blood flow
in. Viagra was designed to work by
blocking an enzyme that interferes with nitric oxide’s effect.
The prize-winning work contributed “a small piece of
information” to the development of Viagra, said Mariann Caprino,
spokeswoman for Viagra maker Pfizer Inc.
Dr. Valentin Fuster, president of the American Heart
Association, called the nitric oxide discovery “one of the most important
in the history of cardiovascular medicine.”
By showing the gas played an important role in the body, the
researchers set off a cascade of studies that discovered other key things
the gas does, Fuster said.
The wide-ranging results may pay off in new treatments for:
Atherosclerosis, a thickening of artery walls due to fatty
deposits. Nitric oxide has turned
out to be one of the body’s main weapons against atherosclerosis, said Dr.
Jonathan Stamler of the Duke University Medical Center and the Howard
Hughes Medical Institute.
Septic shock, the dangerous drop in blood pressure caused by
white cells pumping out too much nitric oxide in response to
infections. Drugs that reduce the
levels of active nitric oxide are being studied in people.
Cancer, White cells use nitric oxide to defend against tumors,
and scientists are studying whether they can harness the substance’s
Murad, who worked independently of the other winners, called
the Nobel announcement “a delightful surprise.” Furchgott, reached at his home on New
York’s Long Island, said: “I’m very pleased. I truly wasn’t sure I’d ever get an award
like this. I wasn’t sure that I
Murad discovered in 1977 that nitroglycerin and related
artery-widening compounds act by releasing nitric oxide. Furchgott later concluded that cells in
the inner lining of blood vessels secrete some unknown substance that makes
vessels dilate. Ignarro, working
with Furchgott and independently, concluded this unknown signal is nitric
Alfred Nobel, a Swedish industrialist and inventor of
dynamite, endowed the Nobel Prizes in his will. In later life, Nobel’s doctor told him to
take nitroglycerin – one of the ingredients in dynamite – for heart
“However, it would take 100 years until it was clarified that
nitroglycerin acts by releasing nitric oxide gas,” the Karolinska Institute