A 'Baltimoron' Claims a Nobel

October 12, 1994

It may seem like a long and improbable leap from manufacturing stink bombs in a West Baltimore basement to accepting a Nobel prize for medicine. But the career of Dr. Martin Rodbell, a self-described "Baltimoron," is the stuff of small-boy science-whiz dreams-come-true.

Last Sunday, while he was visiting his daughter in Bethesda, Dr. Rodbell got a call from Nobel officials offering him the most distinguished prize in medicine. He shares it with Dr. Alfred G. Gilman of the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center at ** Dallas for research they have carried out independently since the 1960s.

The $930,000 prize recognizes their discovery of G proteins, substances that take signals, such as those from the hormones in the body or from light and sound in the environment, and turn them into cellular chain reactions. These reactions help determine how the body interacts with the environment, and with disease or with the medicines designed to treat illnesses.

Like many good science tales, this one began as a frustrating exercise in challenging accepted scientific dogma. It has since burgeoned into one of the hottest fields in biology and medicine, spawning numerous other avenues of investigation.

The new research has not yet produced miracle cures or even any promising treatments. In time, however, research based on the discovery will allow scientists to understand cellular function so thoroughly that designing drugs for various diseases can be done on a computer.

As Dr. Rodbell reminded reporters Monday, the search for basic knowledge cannot be pursued with a final product in mind. Ironically, lack of federal funds for his research prompted Dr. Rodbell to step down in June from his post at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina.

Even so, the search for knowledge continues. Somewhere, some future Nobel winner is playing with a chemistry set, examining dTC bugs, poking, probing, reading or questioning -- and bouncing with the sheer love of learning, as colleagues say Dr. Rodbell has done throughout his career. It is a career in which his hometown can take great pride.

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