Nobel winner keeps Baltimore in mind

Prize: Awaiting his field's top award, a Hopkins doctor misses his work and his bicycle.

December 10, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

STOCKHOLM, Sweden - In the hallowed history of the Nobel Prizes, no laureate's formal Nobel lecture has culminated quite like this.

Dr. Peter C. Agre had just presented an erudite, hourlong explanation of his discovery of aquaporins, the microscopic water channels in our cells that make life possible, to a distinguished audience at Stockholm University.

"To show the extent of celebrity this brings ... ," Agre said, introducing his final slide, a snapshot from Baltimore's York Road:

"WELLS DISCOUNT LIQUORS," the store's sign said. "CONGRATS DR. AGRE."

"This sign usually advertises cut-rate beer," Agre said. And 500 professors and students forgot their Nobel dignity, and the huge Swedish-modern Aula Magna amphitheater echoed as they roared their appreciation.

When the Johns Hopkins University researcher was awakened at 5:30 a.m. Oct. 8 by a call from the Swedish capital giving him very good news, he stepped unawares into another dimension.

His surreal ride through scientific celebrity will reach its splendid climax today, when Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf Folke Hubertus hands him a gold medal bearing Alfred Nobel's image and a diploma good for about $700,000. That's Agre's half of the 2003 chemistry prize he shares with Dr. Roderick MacKinnon of Rockefeller University in New York.

Introducing Agre's Nobel lecture, Bengt Norden, chairman of the Nobel committee for chemistry, said Agre's 1991 identification of aquaporins was "intimately connected with the question, `What is life?'" He called it " ... a decisive discovery that opened the door to a whole series of biological, physiological and genetic studies of water channels in bacteria, mammals and plants."

But the relentlessly humble 54-year-old physician and biochemist, who salted his slide show with photos of students and collaborators who he said should share the credit, emphasized the serendipitous nature of his find.

He slipped in a slide of a painting of an elderly blind man, feeling his way forward with a cane, and declared, "That's where we entered, following a well-known scientific approach known as pure, blind luck."

Since the call from Stockholm, Agre says, he has felt a little like Chance, the character played by Peter Sellers in the movie Being There - a simple gardener whose random pronouncements are pored over with the deepest seriousness by professors and politicians.

"Expectations are so out of whack with reality," Agre says. "People want my opinion on all kinds of things I know nothing about."

Agre joked with President Bush about large families when his wife, Mary, and their four children filed into the Oval Office with other relatives. He was surprised by radio storyteller Garrison Keillor, a fellow Minnesotan with Norwegian roots, who learned Agre was in the audience at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and improvised:

Here's to Dr. Agre from Johns Hopkins U

Who did something no other chemist could do

He isolated the membrane protein that facilitated the transport of water into and out of the cell

And in the end, he won a Nobel. ...

Even Jinx, the family dog, has appeared on Swedish TV.

And best of all? "In my whole life since my kids became teen-agers," Agre says, "this is the first time they've come home and said, `Dad, my friends think this is so cool.'"

On the other hand, Agre received threatening letters from an anonymous white supremacist that prompted Hopkins to provide extra security. He has coped with a professor at a Romanian university who believes he discovered water channels and whose Web petition to that effect has drawn the signatures of more than 400 Romanians.

(Though most other scientists say Professor Gheorghe Benga's claim is groundless, Agre responded with magnanimity: In his Nobel lecture he twice went out of his way to mention Benga's research.)

Since arriving Saturday in Stockholm, Agre has been mobbed by autograph collectors and waylaid by international television teams. Scientists from around the world have lined up to consult him about aquaporins and their role in everything from kidney disorders, to brain swelling in deadly strokes, to cataracts and the root systems of plants.

Responding to an Italian reporter, he expressed dismay at what he called a "miscarriage of justice" - the federal prosecution of his former teacher, Dr. Thomas C. Butler of Texas Tech University, in a bioterrorism scare over missing vials of plague that ended in a conviction for tax fraud.

Asked at a news conference about his favorite times in science, Agre skipped back two decades from the aquaporin breakthrough and recalled the group of friends who helped ignite his love of research during medical school at Hopkins.

"There was a surfer from Hawaii, a conservative Jew from Brooklyn, a Palestinian refugee, a Spanish antiwar activist, an Italian actor. ... We were an odd assortment of people brought together by science," he said.

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