- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

BALTIMORE — Johns Hopkins University professor Peter Agre received a message from his mother yesterday shortly after learning he had won the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

“Don’t get a big head,” was the message relayed from St. Paul, Minn., through Mr. Agre’s wife, Mary.

“Typical, Lutheran, Midwestern mother,” the Minnesota native said with a laugh. “That’s the message right out of Lake Woebegon.”

Mr. Agre and Roderick MacKinnon will share the $1.3 million prize for their studies of tiny transportation tunnels in cell walls — work that illuminates diseases of the heart, kidneys and nervous system.

Mr. Agre, 54, discovered in 1988 the “channels” that let water pass in and out of cells. Mr. MacKinnon, 47, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in New York, studied the structure and workings of channels that transport charged particles called ions.

Because of Mr. Agre’s work, researchers can follow in detail a water molecule on its way through the cell membrane and understand why only water, not other small molecules or ions, can pass, said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prize.

The work could lead to advances in understanding diseases involving the nervous system, muscles and the heart that occur when ion channels don’t work properly, making them important targets for the pharmaceutical industry.

In an interview in his Baltimore home, Mr. Agre said the discovery of membrane proteins, called aquaporins, was a key to his research, shedding light on the human ability to secrete tears and sweat and to salivate, and on the function of the kidneys and certain areas of the brain. Mr. Agre said it could lead to treatments for certain types of brain injuries, asthma, diabetes, and kidney and lung diseases.

“We now have an answer in aquaporins,” Mr. Agre said. “The next issue is, what are the questions?”

If the lines of inquiry sound unfocused, Mr. Agre said, it’s because the possibilities are so many.

Colleague Landon King, an associate professor of medicine at Hopkins, said the research also could lead to advances in critical care.

“We have some idea what channels can do, but we don’t have a sense of the context in which they play those roles,” said Mr. King, whose specialty is in pulmonary and critical care. “A lot of what we see in the clinical setting involves the inappropriate movement of water.”

Mr. Agre said he had not given much thought about how he will use his share of the Nobel Prize money other than to help his four children, ages 14 to 25, complete their education.

“We’re still a little astonished. We haven’t come up with a financial plan,” he said. “My wife and I are involved in a number of environmental and social issues, and we’ll certainly be looking at those.”

Mr. Agre also used the opportunity to speak about what he called the persecution of U.S. scientists under the USA Patriot Act, particularly the case of Texas Tech researcher Thomas C. Butler, who was charged with giving false statements to the FBI in January about missing vials of bubonic plague bacteria. Mr. Butler, a former Hopkins professor, faces 74 years in prison. He goes to trial this fall.

“This is a case that has bothered many of us,” Mr. Agre said. “It’s of grave concern that in a free society, such an Alfred Hitchcockian situation could emerge.”

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