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Stumbling across water channels, and a Nobel Prize

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Summer


In two talks on campus in March Peter C. Agre, M.D., noted with amusement that when he was applying to medical schools, Yale turned him down. And, in an equally self-effacing vein, when he described the work that won him a share of the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry, he attributed it to “blind luck.”

Agre, a professor of medicine and biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, described his groundbreaking research in similar terms at the 12th annual Robert W. Berliner Memorial Lecture and at the 56th annual meeting of the Associates of the Cushing/ Whitney Medical Library. “We weren’t even looking for water channels,” he said of his discovery that explained how water crosses biological membranes. Agre was studying Rh blood group antigens and became curious about a mysterious protein that kept turning up in his experiments. He detoured from his original research and identified the first of a family of water channel proteins, which he dubbed aquaporins.

“It’s sort of like driving in a remote part of Vermont and coming upon a city of 200,000 people that’s not on the map,” he said.

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