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Nobel laureate’s lecture highlights impact of science

Jan. 28, 2016, 9:46 AM

Prior to his Flexner Discovery Lecture last week, Nobel laureate Peter Agre, M.D., center, poses with, from left, Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research, Provost Susan Wente, Ph.D., Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos, and John York, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biochemistry. (photo by Joe Howell)

by Lorena Infante

“Stay with science,” Nobel laureate Peter Agre, M.D., advised dozens of medical and graduate students who attended his lecture at Vanderbilt University Medical Center last week. “It will take you to fascinating places.”

Indeed it has for Agre, who has traveled to countries that do not have diplomatic relations with the United States in order to meet with scientists and encourage collaborations.

“You can do more inside the country than you can outside, wagging your finger,” he said.

Agre’s talk was part of the Flexner Discovery Lecture Series and was the Hnilica Lectureship, sponsored by the Department of Biochemistry, the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology, and the Office of Sponsored Research. It was hosted by members of the Biochemistry Student Association.

Originally from Minnesota, Agre graduated from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Though his training was in internal medicine, he was highly interested in diarrheal diseases, which can lead to dehydration, at the cellular level. “How does water cross cell membranes?” he wondered.

Agre’s research eventually led to the serendipitous (and Nobel Prize-winning) discovery of the first aquaporin in 1988. These water channel proteins are like a “plumbing system for cells,” and are found in tissues as diverse as red blood cells and the roots of plants.

Aquaporins are important players in a myriad of human health problems, including malaria, which is the current focus of Agre’s work as the director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute.

Malaria is not as widespread as it was a century ago, but it is especially relevant in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is a leading cause of death among children. Although the disease is not always lethal, it may leave residual problems, including blindness, deafness, epilepsy and learning disabilities.

Aquaporin research may help alleviate some aspects of this disease, given that cerebral malaria arises partly through problems with aquaporin-4 in the brain, Agre said.

As grateful as he is for the honor of receiving the Nobel Prize, he said its greatest benefit is in “reminding the citizenry of the world that science moves ahead.”

That’s one reason why, during his tenure as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Agre promoted international scientific collaborations by traveling to countries as diverse as Cuba and North Korea.

“There is room for science in American foreign policy,” he said.

For a complete schedule of the Flexner Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/discoveryseries.

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