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Message to Early-Career Scientists: Work to End Third World Diseases

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Peter AgreLINDAU, Germany—There’s a magazine ad for an expensive skin care product marketed by Christian Dior that claims to trade on aquaporins, the discovery of which by Peter Agre won him the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2003 (he shared it with Roderick MacKinnon). These proteins allow water to move across cell membranes, and are involved in skin maintenance among many other critical biological processes. The prize is noted lower down in the ad copy, well below the visage of a striking young woman.

Agre recently showed the ad to his mother back in Minnesota. "And she smiles and says, ‘Peter, you are finally doing something useful," he said.

The anecdote and humility lesson drew a big laugh here on June 28 from a crowd of hundreds including students, early career scientists and a dozen or so fellow laureates here at the 61st annual Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting.

For Agre, however, it is serious. "Doing something useful" is a theme that he brings to his conversations here with scientists, students and journalists, and it obviously crops up in his own internal dialogues as well. "It’s important to do something useful," he says. "Winning Nobel Prizes is not enough."

Some of his past administrative work, performed while conducting and overseeing high-caliber research programs, he says, has amounted to being "chair of the complaints department at Macy’s." Now, as director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, he is focused aggressively on applicable findings and building a body of research that will result in better treatments for malaria and possibly a vaccine for malaria, which kills nearly a million people annually, mostly children under age 5. "There have been four Nobels for malaria and there will be more," he predicts.

Agre, a medical doctor and research professor, is also active in promoting his students, including Sandra Chishimba, who works at the research unit, and Philip Fitzgerald, who just graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and is working toward an MD/PhD at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Agre nominated both students for the Lindau meeting, which they are attending this week.

"My goal here [at Lindau]," Agre says, "is to put malaria and Third World diseases in front of these students. Sandra Chishimba represents what Third World scientists can accomplish. Her origins are modest but our origins were modest."

Breakfast with Pauling
Agre claims he was a "rakehell" as an adolescent who enjoyed an idyllic childhood in a small town in Minnesota. Meanwhile, his chemist father was close with Linus Pauling, who visited the Agre family’s home from time to time. "The importance of role models can’t be underestimated," Agre says, adding that eating corn flakes with the two-time laureate was "pretty interesting." Agre says the Nobelist asked him one day what he learned at school. "Nothing," the boy replied, in a typical fashion. Pauling’s rejoinder: "We send kids to school and they learn nothing."

Decades later, Agre’s discovery of aquaporins helps to explain how rapid transport of water occurs easily in some tissues but not in all. In some cases, the protein helps us retain urine, such as during a long jog on a hot day. In other cases, the protein helps us to dilute alcohol with urine. Rare defects in gene coding can lead to a profound concentration defect for which patients must drink a liter of water hourly to maintain the body’s fluid status. Bed-wetting in children is related to aquaporins. They are also found at the blood-brain barrier and as such could be a target for drugs down the road to assist stroke victims and others with brain injuries.

Agre is aware that there have been no major advances yet in the medical world resulting from his prize-winning findings, but he is hopeful that there will be down the line.

For now, he looks forward to an upcoming long motorcycle vacation, noting that life is short. "Life is out there and there are adventures out there," he says, "and adventures are worth taking."

Image credit: AAAS


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  1. 1. jtdwyer 7:13 am 06/29/2011

    Presuming global warming and rising sea levels allows the population of mosquitoes to extend their habitats further away from equatorial third world human populations, even developed countries may find their populations subjected to the scourge of malaria.

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  2. 2. BillBrowning 12:24 pm 06/29/2011

    Have you forgotten your history? We followed this pattern just after WWII by improving improving the health of what we consider more primitive societies we did not first provide basic and advanced education. The result, massive overpopulation. Over a long period those societies had developed birth rates about equal to the life expectancy of those groups. Then we come along and help them survive birth and live longer with the same birth rate. Overpopulation, depleted resources, war and strife broke out. It continues today.
    Education first then improved health care.

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  3. 3. BillBrowning 12:34 pm 06/29/2011

    When does basic research produce results? A. 1 year? B. 10 Years? C. 100 years? D. 1000 Years? Answer: All of the above. Here basic research for a trivial matter may, in the future, give mankind many gifts in improved health.

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  4. 4. scientific earthling 2:53 am 07/4/2011

    Bill Browning: I agree with your first comment. You point out; what most educated people see; a massive increase in populations as a result of the educated sharing the benefits of their endeavors with the rest of the world. However not educating them and modifying their reproductive behavior to suite their new longer and less harsh life, created the greatest problem mankind has ever faced. Today people try to educate but we are dealing with very arrogant religious societies, who dismiss the ethics and morals of those who improved their life, claiming they have all the answers in their religious texts.

    Saving lives and increasing lifespans is not what we should do, especially so in an extremely overpopulated world. Natural selection will intervene when resources are exhausted, as they shall be in the very near future. It is too late to begin the education process for 7G humans heading to 10G by mid century, especially since most are religious.

    Just live and when death comes, its just a natural end accept it. No one should do anything to prolong human life or increase food or energy supply. Let famine, inevitable as it is, do what it must to balance the biosphere.

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