Monday, October 04, 2004

The Nobel Nose

This year's Nobel Prize for Medicine has been announced: Press release and Nobel website page. Richard Axel and Linda Buck have been awarded the prize "for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system."

Here is a snip from the Associated Press report, as published on the New York Times website:
Two Americans Win Nobel Prize in Medicine
STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- American researchers Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine on Monday for their work on the sense of smell -- showing how, for example, a person can smell a lilac in the spring and recall it in the winter.

They discovered genes that give rise to a huge variety of "receptor" proteins that sense particular odors. These proteins are found in cells in the nose, which communicate with the brain.

Axel, 58, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Columbia University in New York, shared the prize with Buck, 57, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

They reported the gene discoveries jointly in 1991 and have since worked independently shedding further light on the olfactory system.

The Nobel assembly said the sense of smell "helps us detect the qualities we regard as positive. A good wine or a sun ripe wild strawberry activates a whole array of odorant receptors."

Told of his honor, Axel told Swedish public radio: "That's really marvelous, I'm so honored."

When asked if he had thought about becoming a Nobel laureate, he replied: "No, this is nothing I have been thinking about, I think about my science."

Asked what he would do first, he replied: "I'm going to have a cup of coffee."

Buck did not immediately return a call to the cancer center, but center spokeswoman Susan Edmonds said, "How wonderful! That's exciting."

Academy members tell The Associated Press that the decision to give the pair the award was not in light of any medical or commercial payoffs, but rather to honor their exploration of one of the humanity's most profound senses.

Axel and Buck clarified the intricate biological pathway from the nose to the brain that lets people sense smells. A whiff of an odor brings a mix of different molecules into the nose, where each molecule activates several odor receptors. This pattern of activation is interpreted by the brain, letting people recognize and form memories of about 10,000 different odors, the Nobel Assembly said.

Axel and Buck studied mice, which have about 1,000 odor receptor types. People have somewhat fewer. The two scientists showed that about 3 percent of human genes are devoted to producing the odor receptors.
[ ... Read the full report ... ]

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