UCLA pharmacologist Louis Ignarro examined the therapeutic benefits
of nitroglycerin and went on to make an explosive discovery
Photography by Jilly
Alfred Nobel was suffering from heart disease, he stubbornly refused
to follow his doctor's orders to take nitroglycerine, a remedy that
people had been using since the Victorian era to relieve angina,
although no one knew why it worked. "It is ironical that I am now
ordered by my physician to eat nitroglycerin," wrote the disbelieving
Swedish industrialist who made his fortune mixing nitro with silica
to create dynamite.
a century after Nobel died, one scientist discovered how nitroglycerine
works: It releases nitric oxide in the vascular tissue. In fact,
UCLA pharmacologist Louis Ignarro found that we produce this simple
molecule as a gas in the innermost layer of cells in our arteries
and that, as nitric oxide passes through membranes from cell to
cell, it causes blood vessels to relax or dilate, inhibiting blood-clotting.
Nitric oxide, it turns out, is one of the most powerful substances
in the body because it regulates a whole range of bodily functions
in the brain, lungs, kidneys and other major organs.
a development that Nobel would have deemed "ironical," Ignarro on
Dec. 10, 1998 brought home from Sweden the most coveted award in
science, the Nobel Prize, a tribute from the man who refused to
believe in nitroglycerin's more benign nature to the man who eventually
proved him wrong. As holder of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, which
he won with two other researchers, Ignarro became the second UCLA
scientist in two years to win the prize. UCLA chemist Paul Boyer
won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1997.
by his medical students, who gave him a record 10 Golden Apple Awards
as an exemplary teacher of the basic sciences, Ignarro is the first
Nobel Laureate from the UCLA School of Medicine and the fifth from
UCLA's roster of world-renowned scientists. When Ignarro first began
studying nitric oxide in 1978, few envisioned its significance.
Today, hundreds of scientists are in hot pursuit of nitric oxide's
other secrets. Ignarro's research has already paved the way for
the development of Viagra and may one day lead to the conquest of
hypertension, stroke and arteriosclerosis. "There's still a lot
more work to do," he vows.