Two U.S. scientists yesterday won the 2004 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for genetic studies explaining how the sense of smell works.
Dr. Richard Axel, 58, a physiologist at Columbia University in New York, and Linda B. Buck, 57, a researcher with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, discovered the molecules in the nose that detect odors and the process that relays that information to the brain.
The work by the two Nobel laureates was funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a leading research organization and philanthropy based in Chevy Chase.
“The sense of smell long remained the most enigmatic of our senses. The basic principles for recognizing and remembering about 10,000 different odors were not understood” until they were explained by Dr. Axel and Ms. Buck, the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm said in its citation for the prize.
The institute also said the two scientists “have in several elegant, often parallel studies, clarified the olfactory system from the molecular level to the organization of the cells.”
The winners will split a prize of $1.3 million.
Understanding the human perception of smells took far longer than discovering the mechanisms for sight and sound, because the former required microbiology and DNA technology to find the microscopic cells and proteins involved, said Nobel Assembly Chairman Gran Hansson.
“For two scientists to single-handedly map one of the major human senses is unique in the history of medicine,” Mr. Hansson told the Associated Press.
Dr. Axel was an HHMI investigator at Columbia and Dr. Buck said she was a “post-doc” in his laboratory when they published a paper in 1991 that described a family of “receptor” proteins in the nose that detect odors. Today, both are HHMI investigators and have continued research on the olfactory sense.
The 1991 report, which studied mice, explained that smelling an odor brings a mix of different molecules into the nose, where they activate several odorant receptors. The report also detailed the biological pathway, from nose to brain, that lets people perceive, recognize and remember smells.
Mice have about 1,000 odorant receptors. “The human nose has 350 receptors,” Ms. Buck said yesterday in a conference call with reporters.
Dr. Axel and Ms. Buck’s work on the mechanics of the olfactory sense has not led to any medical breakthroughs, Nobel officials said. But one said it might have implications for pharmaceutical development.
Jim Keeley, spokesman for HHMI, said the institute “employs” 300 of the nation’s leading scientists and provides them with funding and equipment for their research.