Voices Against Indifference Initiative
Peter Agre: My Life in Science
Peter Agre, M.D., was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in
Chemistry by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Academy recognized him
for his laboratory's 1991 discovery of the long-sought "channels" that
regulate and facilitate water molecule transport through cell membranes, a
process essential to all living organisms.
Agre (pronounced AHG-ray) shares this year's prize with
Roderick MacKinnon, a Rockefeller University scientist who determined the
spatial structure of cell membrane channels that control passage of salts.
The discovery of the water channel, dubbed "water
pore" or aquaporin, ushered in a golden age of biochemical, physiological
and genetic studies of these proteins in bacteria, plants and mammals, and
fundamental understanding -- at the molecular level -- of malfunctioning
channels associated with many diseases of the kidneys, skeletal muscle and other
organs. Working from this basic knowledge, scientists are searching for drugs
that can specifically target water channel defects.
"It is a remarkable honor to receive a Nobel Prize,
because it not only recognizes discoveries, but also their usefulness to the
advancement of fundamental science," says Agre. "It is amazing and
gratifying that the Nobel committee feels our work has accomplished that
milestone in just 12 years.”
Since a 1992 paper in Science by Agre and Hopkins
physiologist Bill Guggino, Ph.D., which documented the discovery of the very
first water channel protein, 10 more have been found in mammals, and hundreds
more in plants, bacteria and other forms of life. In Agre's lab alone,
aquaporins have been discovered to be part of the blood-brain barrier and also
associated with critical water transport in skeletal muscle, lung and kidney.
Members of Agre's lab also have found aquaporins in the eye and in salivary and
tear glands. Researchers around the world now study aquaporins in many species
of plants, bacteria and animals, and have linked aberrant water transport to a
multitude of human diseases and conditions.
The discovery of aquaporin is an example of luck favoring
the well-prepared. Beginning in the mid-1980s, he and his colleagues, including
technician Barbara Smith and then post-doc Gregory Preston, Ph.D., were
searching for proteins that are part of the Rh-factor when they happened across
an abundant and much smaller protein. The researchers pursued the unexpected
protein visitor -- they isolated it and discovered that it was widely expressed
-- and within a year had cloned its complementary DNA. In dramatic experiments
with frogs' eggs, the scientists next proved that the unknown protein was in
fact biology's elusive cellular regulator of water transport.
Although Agre started his career in medicine, he gradually
shifted to laboratory research so that he could investigate fundamental
biological questions whose answers would have clinical relevance. "I am certain that in the future, we will be able to capitalize on our
understanding of aquaporins to benefit medicine, biotechnology and even
agriculture," says Agre. "We still have much to learn, and the
possibilities of where aquaporins will take us are unlimited. "
Born in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1949, Agre went to Theodore
Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, and in 1970 earned his bachelor's degree
in chemistry from Augsburg College in that city. He received his medical
doctorate from Johns Hopkins in 1974. In 1981, after post-graduate medical
training and then a fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill, Agre returned to Hopkins, where he progressed through the ranks of the
departments of medicine and cell biology. In 1993, he was recruited by
then-department director Daniel Lane, Ph.D., to become a professor in the
department of biological chemistry, a position he still holds.
Agre was elected to membership in the National Academy of
Sciences in 2000 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. He
holds two U.S. patents on the isolation, cloning and expression of aquaporins 1
and 5 and is the principal investigator on four current National Institutes of
Also visit www.nobelprize.org
for more information on Peter Agre.