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Winter 1998
Bruin Nobelity

Popular UCLA pharmacologist Louis Ignarro examined the therapeutic benefits of nitroglycerin and went on to make an explosive discovery

By Cynthia Lee
Photography by Jilly

When 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.

Nearly 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.

In 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.

Beloved 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.

2005 The Regents of the University of California