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NObel Prize for Heart Research

By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence

Stockholm, SWEDEN (10/12/98)- Three American researchers will receive this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on nitric oxide and the heart.

The three researchers are Professor Robert F Furchgott, Department of Pharmacology, State University of New York; Professor Louis J Ignarro  Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, UCLA School of Medicine; and Professor Ferid Murad Department of Integrative Biology, Pharmacology and Physiology, University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

less butter?"The discovery of nitric oxide and its function is one of the most important in the history of cardiovascular medicine," says Valentin Fuster, M.D., Ph.D., president of the American Heart Association. "It has allowed us to improve certain treatments of patients and has given us the basis to explore other mechanisms in the body which may contribute to cardiovascular disease."

Graphic: The arteries are sites of a very common disease, atherosclerosis. Here, an artherosclerotic plaque has formed in a coronary artery. It consists of cholesterol, inflammatory cells, and fibrosis, and it reduces the space for blood flow in the artery. Click for more graphics.

The prize-winning researchers helped elucidate the key role nitric oxide plays as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system. Their work showed that NO is not like other signalling molecules. Their discovery that NO gas that is produced by one cell, penetrates through membranes and regulates the function of another cell revealed a new principle for signalling in biological systems. NO differs from other neurotransmitters and hormones in that it is not regulated by storage, release or targeted degradation, but rather solely by synthesis.This discovery is all the more amazing considering that NO, a compound more often associated with air pollution, is very unstable, and is converted to nitrate and nitrite within 10 seconds of its creation.

Nitric oxide is involved in numerous physiological processes. A lack of nitric oxide in the bloodstream, or a lack of reactivity by the blood vessels to nitric oxide, can narrow the vessel opening, thus raising the blood pressure. When NO is produced by the innermost cell layer of the arteries, the endothelium, it rapidly spreads through the cell membranes to the underlying muscle cells. Their contraction is turned off by NO, resulting in a widening of the arteries. NO has also recently been shown to play a key role in prevention of clot formation in the major vessels of the heart.

Nitroglycerine has been prescribed for patients with heart disease since the time of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Foundation. Alfred Nobel's famous invention, dynamite, is a less explosive form of nitrooglycerine. While it has been used for 100 years to treat chest pain assocaited with heart disease, it was only recently discovered that  nitroglycerine acts by releasing NO gas. New, more selective drugs based on this knowledge are in development.

It is hard to find a physiologic process in which NO does not play some role. When activated in nerve cells, NO  can modulate many functions, from behaviour to gastrointestinal motility. NO is important for the olfactory sense and the capacity to recognise different scents. In the immune system, NO is produced in white blood cells, making them toxic to invading bacteria and parasites. There are also indications that NO may help prevent or slow tumor development. Recent treatments for impotence capitalize on the role of NO in initiating erection.

Related information on the Internet
NO Synthase Research
NO & Heart Disease
NO Society
Recent Nobel Prizes
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1997 Boyer et al.-ATP
1996 Doherty et al.- Immunology 
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