Stanley B. Prusiner


Interview, December 2004

Interview with Professor Stanley B. Prusiner by science writer Peter Sylwan, 11 December 2004.

Professor Prusiner talks about his at the time controversial discovery; the many years of work behind the Nobel Prize (2:52); his recent work (4:48); and the importance of communication between scientists and public (7:49).

Interview transcript

Welcome to meet the Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine for 1997, Dr Stanley Prusiner, the man who did as very few scientists do, but all of them will get Nobel Prizes I think, they really turn the concept we have upside down, and please tell me Dr Prusiner, what did you really turn upside down?

Stanley B. Prusiner: Im not sure I turned anything upside down, it was a discovery that people really didn’t want to accept for a long time because it went against so many preconceived notions. The idea that a protein was infectious and the disease could be both genetic and infectious and then even spontaneous. These were concepts that people had a hard time accepting.

But why was it so controversial?

Stanley B. Prusiner: I think that it was a long time in coming to understand that genes are made of DNA or RNA, primarily DNA. That all infectious agents, the progeny of all infectious agents are encoded by a strand of DNA or RNA and in fact all organisms. So, the idea that there should be something totally different and it should be “alive”, it can replicate in a biological system, just I think was very difficult to accept and I think people were justified in being sceptical because the discovery that DNA is the genetic material of life didn’t occur until the middle of the 20th century.

So in a way you challenged the central dogma of molecular biology at that time, that all the information was contained, the DNA and the RNA and the proteins were just the templates or the churning out of the … Now you’d proved that proteins in itself, in these cells right could contain information so to say?

Stanley B. Prusiner: Yes and no. In the beginning it seemed that way, that we were challenging the dogma and as the story emerged, it became very clear that it fit within the dogma of biology, but that one had to make small revisions and these revisions turned out to be groundbreaking in many other areas. The concept that a protein could then exist in two biologically active forms was not well accepted and in fact they were not good examples.

It took you 10 years to come to this conclusion, to really put forward the proofs for your idea. What kept you going when everyone was suspicious about the ideas?

… this was a 25 year project, it took me about 10 years to really get into it …

Stanley B. Prusiner: Yes, this was a 25 year project, it took me about 10 years to really get into it and lay out what I thought were the real possibilities and then another 10 years to gather the information that made it clear that these ideas were not science fiction but in fact they were real and that people who were sceptical were certainly justified but that there had now came a point where their scepticism no longer was really useful.

But what kept you going, I mean 25 years ago, tell me?

Stanley B. Prusiner: When you make a discovery like prions, you become very passionate about it and you look for other things that are as interesting, where you might not find as much human opposition and when you can’t find something, if you’re not very imaginative, you’re not very bright and you are unable to find another project that’s as exciting, then you say to yourself, well, I’ll just keep going on this and nothing better that I can work on.

But despite that all the colleagues, well not all but the scientific community around you, really thought you were doing mad things?

Stanley B. Prusiner: Not everybody, there were enough people who were very supportive and who provided the day to day support as well as being sufficiently convinced that we were doing good work to act as peers in the review of the work, so that it was supported by the National Institutes of Health, because otherwise we would have never been able to survive. In addition we had some private funding that was very important.

That is important.

Stanley B. Prusiner: Yes, the philanthropy was critical.

It’s seven year now since you came to Stockholm to get the prize and I wonder what has happened since?

Stanley B. Prusiner: My life has been a little more hectic. In some ways I’ve relaxed a little bit more, although many people would not tell you that was true and the work has continued to move forward.

Has there been any difficulties, I mean, there were controversies even when you got the prize, in the protein only had part of this work challenged for many respects and as you come up with some even more definite proof that is the protein only theory will hold?

Stanley B. Prusiner: Yes, this past summer we published two papers, one piece of work we made a synthetic prion with a peptide that we synthesised in the chemical means. This was culminated in four years of work where we’d published the first paper in the year 2000, so that was three years after the prize and then a follow-up paper this past spring. Then in the summer we published another paper in which we made the protein in bacteria and isolated the protein and then refolded it and showed that we’d made a synthetic prion that way. So we’ve done this two different ways where we’ve started with a sequence that either produced an E-coli or produced by chemical means and then changed the confirmation of the protein and turned it into an infectious pathogen.

And you proved that this synthetic infectious prion managed to alter the shape of the proteins, the prions in the infected animal?

Stanley B. Prusiner: If they didn’t do it, then I don’t know what did it.

But you were challenged on this as well, afterwards.

… even after we published these papers, we were challenged by people …

Stanley B. Prusiner: Oh yes, even after we published these papers, we were challenged by people, not a lot, most people think that we have finished the task of convincing the world but I think, you know, there are a few, and that’s normal and they probably will never be convinced.

When you received your prize, you also gave the banquet speech where you said something like, the Nobel Prize is a celebration of science, yes and culture.

Stanley B. Prusiner: It’s a celebration of science and culture, well an intellectual achievement in our civilisation and it’s really, I think, unique. There is no other celebration like the Nobel Prize celebration.

It’s interesting, you mention science and culture together. We just got a new minister in Sweden, in science and culture, the same minister and the same department, Science and Culture, and when he gave a press conference just when he entered his chair, he didn’t get a single question on science from the journalists, just about culture.

Stanley B. Prusiner: I think that’s not surprising. I think it’s very difficult for people to ask questions about science just off the top of their heads and I think one of the problems I had with the press for so long was that they were so uneducated about science. Now to be fair to the press, they have very little time to write a story or to produce a story and so being thrown into an area where some scientists are telling them the work is excellent and others are telling them that it’s complete fraud and craziness – they don’t know how to judge. I can well imagine, when the Minister of Culture and Science is appointed and the press is asked to come to a press conference, if the press conference materials don’t lay out in detail an agenda for science, so in an understandable lay language, then I can well understand they may not ask any questions.

But maybe you could also wonder whose responsibility is this? If you want to be well known and if you want to communicate with the audience, I mean you can’t alter the journalist, the only thing you can alter is the scientist maybe, yourself.

Stanley B. Prusiner: Right, who are we talking about, the minister or myself?

Who is to blame if the communication doesn’t work, the journalists or the scientists?

… it still is the responsibility of the scientist to try to communicate better with the public …

Stanley B. Prusiner: The scientists. I think that the scientists have to constantly try to translate what they do into language that most people can understand and we are never going to be in a position where everyone is a knowledgeable layman, meaning they have a great scientific background because whatever they learn in a university setting is already obsolete the day they graduate. So the best we can do is hope we can train them in some introductory science courses to give them a little background, but after that, it still is the responsibility of the scientist to try to communicate better with the public and this is very, very hard to do, because each year, science becomes more complicated, there’s more and more specialised vocabulary. One of the things we don’t have as scientists is we don’t have a lot of people around who understand the details of the science intimately who are interested in translating it for the public.

Because this central idea when we were talking about communication is that we talk about public understanding of science but as you phrase it now, that is not very easy to do, so maybe you should turn the thing around, it’s science understanding a public that is more interesting.

Stanley B. Prusiner: The science is understanding the public or making the scientists making science more understandable for the public.

Yes, but also to understand how the public thinks and feels and what their values are, to be able to phrase their science in a framework where people can understand it.

Stanley B. Prusiner: I think that’s very legitimate, I’m not sure how practical that is in terms of making that happen.

Do you want to try it?

Stanley B. Prusiner: I can try. Whatever you’d like to talk about, I’ll try to …

No, that in a way would be to make science as a part of culture.

Stanley B. Prusiner: I think that’s wonderful but the problem is, where do we start? How do we get this moving and it’s extremely difficult? I mean you would hope that, for instance, the web would be a great place to do this. The Internet is ideal in many respects. The problem with the Internet is there’s so much material on the Internet, it’s uncensored, it’s unreviewed, so for the person who doesn’t have a lot of knowledge, they now Google themselves into some website and all of a sudden they’re confronted with material that they can’t judge whether this material is legitimate, whether it’s reasonable, whether it fits with the scientific data or it’s some wacko person’s ideas about a disease or some physical process. You know, it’s very, very hard for people to judge this.

… you can find all kinds of material, much of which is unsupported by any scientific data …

I’ll give you an example in the field of mad cow disease. You can go into the Internet and look up mad cow disease and you can find all kinds of material, much of which is unsupported by any scientific data. And there are a lot of people out there interested in this because this is a huge economic issue and it’s a huge health issue and yet there’s an enormous amount of information which is available that comes from peer reviewed scientific studies and yet, if you don’t have a reasonable working knowledge, you’ll be confused when you get into this. So it’s very, very hard I think to put science out there for the public and we need to figure out how to do this. It’s not a given, in fact we do it very poorly.

But there’s a big challenge to your colleagues and for the scientific community.

Stanley B. Prusiner: I think the challenge is huge and I must say that I don’t know how to do this. I find it very difficult to identify people who are very interested in doing this. In other words, someone who has a very good working knowledge of science who can really judge and we’re not talking about all science now, we’re saying okay, someone who perhaps is very good in the field of neuroscience and neurological diseases and then finding such a person who wants to devote his or her life to making this available to the public.

Finally, what would your perspective be for the scientific community or for the society as a whole if you doesn’t succeed in communicating science?

Stanley B. Prusiner: I think that there are huge problems for society if scientists can’t communicate their science. It’s so important. Number one, funding for scientific research depends upon public support. I think that policymakers, legislators, they need to be informed and they need to be informed in terms that they can understand, not that we want them to understand, that’s number one. Secondly, I think as our planet grows more crowded, people need the information in order to make decisions that benefit others on our planet and third, if we don’t communicate science, we won’t see the science turned into technologic advantages for our civilisation.

So scientists have a huge responsibility, they’re not very good at doing this and at the same time, it’s not fair to put all the burden on them because that’s not what they want to do, that’s not the job they’ve signed up for, they’ve signed up very often to roll back the frontiers of knowledge. So we need people in between, the people gathering the knowledge, the people consuming the knowledge, we need people in between to translate and my guess is that we’re going to need to create such a discipline for our society which our society meaning civilisation on this planet, which each year grows more and more dependent upon high technology.

So, to finish, let’s hope that the audience is googling around on Google to this interview and to share the ideas and the thoughts. Thank you very much for giving us your time.

Stanley B. Prusiner: Thank you.

Thank you.

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