Interview with Professor Günter Blobel by Professor Jan Lindsten, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, and Fatima Moumén, student, 12 December 1999.
Professor Blobel talks about the necessity of inspiring teachers; the importance of mentorship (1:49); his move from Germany to the USA and the Rockefeller University (2:52); new opportunities in medical research (5:31); different aspects of his discovery (7:31); the driving forces behind his work (13:49); and consequences of receiving the Nobel Prize (14:50).
Gunter Blobel, we would like to join all those who have congratulated to this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine which you received two days ago here in Stockholm. We also know that you have had a very hectic week indeed, and we are therefore very grateful that you have had the opportunity to come here today to this discussion and I think I would like to ask my young colleague here to start the discussion. Fatima?
I wonder which factors have been of greatest importance for your career?
Gunter Blobel: I was very fortunate to have been in the right environment and the right place at the right time, to have met the right teachers, and it started in elementary school, it went to the gymnasium I had wonderful teachers, in medical school I had wonderful inspiring teachers who always ask questions and stimulated us to think about things that weren’t known and so I was … When I did my medical doctorate I realised that many diseases are treated symptomatically and not in a causative manner and so I was very interested in learning more about diseases, the cause for diseases, this is why I went into research. I was very fortunate to meet George Palade who won the Nobel Prize in 1974, was a very stimulating man who shaped my career. So it was being in the right place at the right time and using the chances and the opportunities properly.
And how important do you think the mentorship is?
Gunter Blobel: Mentorship is very important because you have to learn how to formulate an idea out of the chaos of data that there is and out of the hints that there are that there may be a concept that you could distil out of this tremendous chaos of data and to integrate it into a new idea and that is something you have to learn.
What comprises a good mentor?
Gunter Blobel: A good mentor is a person who is not overpowering but is gently stimulating you and is opening up, helping you to open up a new world of ideas and that is what a good mentor is and who is passionate about what he or she is doing. That’s the most important thing, to be passionate, to be really involved in what you want to do.
How come you decided to leave Germany and move to the United States?
Gunter Blobel: I left Germany in 1962 and at that time Germany was still recovering from war and there were not too many research institutes available at that time and the opportunities were much more impressive in the United States, and I also wanted to have an American experience, I wanted to learn English, I wanted to be exposed to the American way of doing research and so this is why I went to the United States. Not with the intention to stay but actually to stay there maybe for one or two years and then come back to Germany but then I, for many reasons, I continued to stay there and I’m still there.
Your work at Rockefeller University, there are many Nobel Laureates at that university. How does that come, what’s so specific or so special about Rockefeller University?
Gunter Blobel: It is a fairly small place so that people know each other and you really … The administration of the place is not intrusive so that you have time to think about your research 24 hours a day. There’s only 150 students, graduate students and they’re very, very good graduate students with whom we interact on a more personal basis, there are something like 300 faculty and 150 students so the ratio is quite impressive and we know each other very well because it is a small place and we have time to think about research 24 hours a day, as I already said.
Is it possible to create a creative environment?
Gunter Blobel: It’s very difficult to do that, even at Rockefeller you have to constantly recreate this environment and the environment of course changes, it’s not something which is taken for granted. Another thing that Rockefeller is unique is it doesn’t have departments, it doesn’t have departmental boundaries so that you can create new disciplines by intermingling new ideas and you create just a new department or a new laboratory. You don’t have laboratories at the Department of Biochemistry, you can call your laboratory anything you want to, Laboratory of Cellular Biophysics for instance, if you were very interested in biophysics, you can also change the name again if you want to if you want to pursue something else and that gives you great flexibility.
What would you … if I considered to go into medical research, what do you suggest that I should think of?
Gunter Blobel: Now that the sequence of human DNA will be done within a short time, you will have a vast amount of information, we will have the Rosetta stone of human biology at least and that will give tremendous new opportunities for all disciplines, be it neurobiology, be it cell biology, be it pharmacology, immunology, everybody … All of the disciplines will benefit from this tremendous amount of information which is coming but now we need people who can digest this information and can distil it out into new concepts.
We have to learn how proteins work in the context of a cell and in the context of the organism. Just to give you an example, in E. coli we know, in the bacterium, we know the sequence for some time but we still don’t know what 50 percent of the proteins are doing in E. coli and E. coli is a much simpler organism than a human cell. So this is going to be a great challenge for your generation to really teach us what are all these proteins doing and how are they doing it in the context of a cell, not only of a cell but the entire organism.
And look for a good mentor.
Gunter Blobel: Look for a good mentor, somebody who’s passionate, somebody who really loves science and forgets about everything else, for the moment at least.
And how important is the environment?
Gunter Blobel: So the environment is very important, that you really can focus and concentrate on science and you’re not distracted by too many other things, teaching is very important but we do not have to teach undergraduates which saves us a lot of time.
Let’s shift to something else. There are three key words in the will of Alfred Nobel. One is that the name of the prize is “Physiology or Medicine”, it’s not medicine which is physiology or medicine is a much broader field. The second thing is that the prize should be awarded for a discovery and it should be of greatest benefit to mankind. Of course the impact of these key words is consistently being discussed by the Nobel Assembly, but it is also now and then brought up in editorials in scientific journals. I don’t want you to judge the work that has been done by the Nobel Assembly but I would like you to put your work into these contexts in terms of discovery, in terms of benefit on mankind and physiology or medicine.
Gunter Blobel: Well, first physiology or medicine. What we have worked on is the very basic aspect of how cells work, not a human cell only, but also all animal cells, plant cells even bacteria and all. Cell is a unit of life and how does it deal with organising itself. It is not just a mail to send something to this or this address but it is … because it also deals with how membranes are put together, it really deals with the structural organisation of a cell, how does it organise itself into the various compartments and how does it maintain this organisation and that is a very fundamental aspect about how all cells work. Now the medical benefits of that is that we for instance in the production of proteins that, let’s take insulin, which was formerly gotten from slaughterhouses and was extracted, can now be made in bacteria and you can use a zip code to get the insulin out of the bacteria and then can separate it from bacteria much easier.
And there’s not only the insulin, there are many growth factors like erythropoietin of which last year $2 billion were sold alone, important for people who suffer anaemia due to kidney failure and dialysis patients in particular so there is a huge market of medicines which has been developed which is in part, in part based on the discoveries which were made and there will be many more. It will be very important in the understanding of diseases; we already know that some diseases are caused by miss-targeting of proteins or by improper traffic patterns in the proteins so this is just what we have studied so far, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, there will be many, many other diseases that will have as a cause irregular traffic patterns or inability of the cell to organise itself properly.
So the benefit so far has mainly been to increase our knowledge but the benefit in terms of applications to treat the diseases will come later on?
Gunter Blobel: In a way it, you know, the fact that you can now make recombinant proteins in bacteria and in yeast and you will be able to make many, not just insulin and erythropoietin, many other gross factors and you can easily purify it, you can make it in large quantities as a huge quantum term. The fact that you had to previously go and isolate them from slaughterhouse animals like this contamination, is a huge jump forward which will help all of medicine. Now it’s not only based on my discoveries obviously, it’s based on the fact that you can make recombinant DNA and that you can express recombinant DNA and bacteria and so on but we have learned how to get the protein out of the cell and therefore we can purify it much easier. That is a very, from a practical point of view.
I had lunch at Upjohn Pharmacia and they’re producing growth hormone and this is half a billion dollars’ worth of growth hormone that is being produced in bacteria, right, and they are making now factor VIII or they have already made factor VIII which is on the market which something to do with blood clotting and so therefore a large number, a whole repertoire of proteins will be produced in this way. You will, you may be able to engineer cells and to get certain proteins into certain organisms and make them more efficient and that may be very important for cell therapy in the future so there will be future benefits to come down the line as a result of understanding how the cell works.
But I would like to emphasise that we are far away from understanding the cell, I don’t like to give the impression that this now we understand the cell, we are very, very far away from understanding cells. We may never completely understand the cell, we may hit something like the uncertainty principle in physics where while we are trying to measure something in the cell we disturb something and therefore the measurement that we are getting is faulty. But we are not at that level yet, we still are trying to map out very basic functions of the cell and we will have to understand the entire repertoire of functions and what principles the cells use in order for instance to find out how is a normal cell distinct from a cancer cell, because at the moment we treat cancer cells and try to kill cancer cells but we don’t know the differences precisely and therefore we kill many normal cells too. So we have to learn about cells, cells is the unit, basic unit of life and we have to learn how they work and what we discovered is the common principle which works in all cells.
You get very excited when you talk about this. Is excitement and curiosity the main driving force, why you have done all this?
Gunter Blobel: I’ve always had fun, I mean I was, my entire research sort of was hypothesis driven therefore I always imagined how things would be and then some of my fantasies of course turned out to be wrong and one must not be wed to one’s fantasies, one must when data come which aren’t compatible with one’s fantasies, one must abandon them. There are beautiful hypothesis killed by ugly facts and so one has to, but one has to also pursue and see whether one can get evidence for or against it and it’s wonderful to take a phenomena and then think about them and then imagine how it could possibly work and then see whether one can provide some evidence for or against it.
Fatima, you started, would you like to make a final question?
Yes, I wonder what consequence receiving the Nobel Prize have for your future.
Gunter Blobel: I’ve noticed in this last eight weeks that a lot of people have asked me for my opinions and one thing I want to be very careful about, I don’t want to give opinions that are not based on facts, I don’t want to now discuss atomic disarmament and all sorts of other problems, societal problems, economic problems, other problems that we are afflicted with which I haven’t studied because I, also I like to hypothesise. In the end I would like to have facts and there are certain things that I would like to do, I would like to do things that interest me, like to do something for Dresden, I don’t want to go into the details why, I want to like to do something for understanding between people, peoples, I want to do something for humanity, I want to give something back of the wonderful education that I have received but I will more or less continue my research as long as I feel that I can do it.
Thank you very much.
Gunter Blobel: Thank you.
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