Interview with the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, Louis J. Ignarro, in August 2008. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
Louis Ignarro discusses growing up in New York City as the son of first generation immigrant parents who had no formal education, his graduate successes at the University of Minnesota (7:24), the value of and threat to pharmacological research (12:04), his five year period in industry before returning to academia (16:40), and his contribution to discovering the role of nitric oxide for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize (22:44). He also explains his love of teaching (39:32), his everyday use of the scientific approach (44:19) and the current extension of his work on nitric oxide to nutrition based supplements (47:35).
Interview with Professor Louis J. Ignarro in 1999 by Dr. Nils Ringertz, founder of Nobelprize.org, and Professor Göran Hansson, Karolinska Hospital.
Professor Ignarro talks about how he came to know about being awarded the Nobel Prize; how the Prize has affected his life and work (4:21); and about the key challenges in cardiovascular biology and medicine (8:52).
We are at the Nobel Foundation and we are very pleased today to welcome Dr Louis Ignarro, the Nobel Prize Laureate of 1998. With me is Professor Göran Hansson of the Karolinska Hospital, who is an expert in cardiovascular research, the area which we are going to discuss and where Dr Ignarro has made very important contributions which were rewarded with last year’s Prize in Physiology or Medicine. So I would like to ask the first question if I may. When we had decided to award the Nobel Prize to you, my job was to try to find you and inform you about your Prize. I tried to locate you and had problems doing so, so instead you became the first Nobel Laureate to have been informed by electronic mail. Now, could you please tell us really, how you came to know about the Nobel Prize?
Louis J. Ignarro: It’s a very interesting story actually. I had been invited to Nice, France, to give a talk and also to Naples, Italy, to give another talk, so I was in Nice on October 12th in the morning and I was waiting to board the aeroplane when the airport attendant came over to me with a cellular phone and she said, “Are you Dr Ignarro”, I said “Yes”, she said “There’s an important phone call from the United States”. So she gave me the cellular phone and I said “Hello” and it was one of my colleagues, who’s a physician at UCLA and he usually jokes around with me and so on and he calls me all the time. He asked me how I was doing, how was the weather, how was the trip, and I said “Fine, fine but I’m very busy, I have to get on the plane, let me call you when I get to Naples in about an hour”. He said “Okay, but before you go I have to tell you something” and I said “Well, please make it in a hurry because I have to board the plane” and he said “You won the Nobel Prize” and then we got disconnected, the cellular phone, you know the power was lost, we got disconnected and I gave back the phone and I boarded the plane but I never really knew if I had won the Nobel Prize or not.
So I boarded the plane and I remember I was looking at the people on the plane, I thought maybe if it was true, maybe this was in the newspaper and people would recognise my face and so I kept looking at everybody to see if anybody would recognise me. But nobody recognised me so I sat down and again I wasn’t sure, so about an hour later, when the plane landed in Naples, the Professor who invited me to give a talk at the University of Naples was waiting for me, not in the terminal building where you wait for most people who are coming in by plane, but he was actually standing on the runway with the airport police waving a piece of paper and so I looked at him from the window of the aeroplane and I’m wondering, what is he doing there?
And then I suspected, you know, maybe he’s trying to tell me some important news, maybe it is true, so I exited the plane and I get to the ground and he says “Lou, Lou, have you heard the news” and I said “No, no”, I didn’t want to tell him what I heard, I said “No, I haven’t heard any news”. He said “Quickly, come over here and read this”. So he holds up this piece of paper, but later I found it, it was written in Swedish, it was the press release I guess, but I recognised the first five letters of this very long word and it started off Nobel and then my eyes drifted downward and I saw my name and I actually dropped to the ground, I was so surprised and so jubilant and that’s how I first heard about the Nobel Prize, far away from home.
We know that awarding somebody the Nobel Prize may change the life of that person quite a lot and initially there is a lot of media attention, but could you tell us how it has affected your research work and possibilities of getting grants for your research?
Louis J. Ignarro: There have been very mixed results but I think all of them are positive. It certainly has had a tremendous impact on my personal life because there are many interviews, TV, magazines, radio and so on and so forth which involve my wife. My wife is basically quite shy, or I should say Sharon was shy, she’s not shy anymore because she’s gotten used to this. But actually we both enjoy this very much, I mean this has resulted in many opportunities, many invitations to give talks, both scientific talks and also talks to the lay public about issues in medicine, in health and disease and funding and so on and so forth, so there has been a lot of work but it’s been very, very good.
It has also affected the research in my laboratory but again in a positive way. Although I necessarily spend less time with my people now for a while, because I’m so busy, it’s given my students and my post-docs the opportunity to be more independent and to be more creative in an independent way, aside from it, because they know that they have to do their work now in my absence and what I’ve seen is very positive results, because they work hard and they’re doing a very good job, certainly better than before I think and I don’t mean to say that I’m away from the laboratory all the time, I’m not, I’m there and if I’m not there physically I’m there in spirit and mind, but I’m saying that this has helped my people to develop more independently of me and I think that’s a good thing.
Another positive aspect is that, this being awarded a Nobel Prize and creating all this recognition at the UCLA where I am has really helped increase the funding for conducting research in my laboratory, from a number of different sources. The National Institutes of Health has been very kind, I’m not saying that they would not have given me the money if I didn’t win the Nobel Prize, no, I just think that this sort of, you know, comes together. I have three NIH grants now, usually I have one or two, so maybe that’s a positive sign but a lot of Pharmaceutical Companies, Biotech Companies, a lot of private people, foundations, all want to know more about the research I do and once I tell them about the research I do, they’re all very happy to make some fairly significant contributions to the laboratory, to help improve and to help me enlarge the research that is going on and private giving is very important, at least in the United States.
I’m sure this is true everywhere and in Los Angeles, we are lucky in that there are many people who can offer this private giving to sponsor research and this has been a very positive thing for me and for my laboratory. Also the school’s very proud, the school is very happy, this is all very positive for UCLA, for the University of California system. So what they have done, I have requested and they have approved the establishment of a new Institute, and Institute for Cardiovascular Biology and Medicine and my objective there will be to improve the cardiovascular research that is going on and to bring the cardiovascular research closer to the actual patient, by bringing research and clinical expertise closer together. They’ve approved that and they are funding that new Institute, they’re starting to fund that, so I think this will work in a very positive way to enhance our cardiovascular research programme. So there have been many positive aspects that winning the Nobel Prize has created for my laboratory and for cardiovascular research in general in UCLA, not just for me but for other people in the cardiovascular area.
Dr Ignarro, this new Institute for Cardiovascular Biology and Medicine should provide tremendous opportunities for further investigations into cardiovascular biology and diseases. What will be the main issues that you will address and which do you think are the main challenges ahead of us in cardiovascular medicine?
Louis J. Ignarro: Sure, very good question. Well, as I said earlier, one of the objectives, the main objective of this new institute will be to strengthen and enlarge the cardiovascular research area that we have at UCLA and what I want to be able to do with the Institute is to bring everybody together, everyone who’s working in a variety of areas of cardiovascular research, both basic science and clinical science, to bring everybody together under one umbrella. In other words within one building, so we can all interact with one another, talk to one another every day, drink coffee with one another, share all of our experiences in the laboratory and I think that when you have more than one or two heads working on a common problem, you’re in a much better position to solve problems and answer important questions in biology and medicine, so I’m hoping that this is what we’re able to do.
Now, the areas we will focus on really, we’re going to focus on a number of different diseases that have vascular problems as the origin, this is not only cardiovascular diseases but also involves other diseases such as diabetes, because complicated forms of diabetes have a vascular component. Impotency, as you know, is a vascular disease in the erectile tissue, so we will focus on that, but within the cardiovascular realm, I think that the most important areas we want to focus on right now is coronary artery disease or atherosclerosis. We’ve got a good group at UCLA, many of these people are scattered and they don’t talk to one another the way I would like to see everyone talk to one another, so hopefully within the Institute we’ll be able to interact in a very efficient way and really compliment one another and once we have enhanced this basic research in the area of atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease and also hypertension and stroke, these are really all related.
I think what we want to do then is take this research and bring it closer to the patient. We want the clinical people to work more closely with the basic research people so that each person will understand the other person’s problems and questions and I think in that way, we can approach the solution of these problems, that is developing new methods of diagnosis and prevention and treatment of these cardiovascular diseases in a much faster way. I really believe that we can do this, so I’m hoping that the Institute will provide a forum within which we can accomplish our goals.
Well, we have come to the end of this interview and I would like to thank you, Dr Ignarro for coming here to the Nobel Foundation. Not only are you the first Nobel Laureate to be informed by electronic mail, you also the first Laureate to be interviewed in this new series for the Electronic Nobel Museum, which will materialise in the year 2001, in connection with the centennial. So thank you very much for coming here and thank you Göran Hansson for joining me in this interview.
Louis J. Ignarro: Thank you.
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