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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

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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