Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Nov. 29, 2012 Volume 34, No. 14

Nobel laureate’s medical school lecture points to new areas for molecular research

Alternate text



Mysteries of the “miracle molecule” revealed at talk

In 1867 Alfred Nobel, who instituted the Nobel Prizes, invented dynamite, which has nitroglycerin in it. At the time, it was known that nitroglycerin was not only good at blowing things up. It helped people’s heart, though no one knew why. 

This seemed counterintuitive: How could the organic nitrate compound that splinters mountainsides help the human cardiovascular system? Nobel, who had a weak heart, was so skeptical he refused nitroglycerin treatment from doctors.

Nobel laureate Ferid Murad told this story with irony at his Nov. 15 lecture in the School of Medicine’s Bryant Auditorium. In 1998, Murad shared in winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. He and his two colleagues — scientists Robert F. Furchgott and Louis J. Ignarro — had been honored with the highest award in science for discovering why nitroglycerin eased cardiovascular pain. 

His lecture was part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Visitors Program, now in its second year. About 300 medical students and researchers in MU’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Science attended. 

In the 1980s, Murad was a tenured professor at Stanford University. Later he joined the University of Texas to create a department that integrated biology and pharmocology disciplines. He is currently director of the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Signaling at George Washington University. 

Despite being a Nobel laureate, the 76-year-old scientist still teaches an undergraduate course, advises students and leads a laboratory at George Washington.

Murad and colleagues won the Nobel for discovering that nitroglycerin contains the molecule nitric oxide, which softens the lining of veins and arteries to facilitate blood flow. Better blood flow lessens the chance of cardiac arrest and other heart ailments. “Nitric oxide is the mechanism of relaxation,” Murad said at the lecture. 

The implication of the discovery was enormous. It resulted in better nitric oxide-based medicines for patients suffering from high blood pressure, hypertension and heart ailments, caused in part by patients having low nitric oxide levels in the body.

But Murad also expressed frustration over development of nitric oxide products by pharmaceutical companies. “They are more interested in selling product than getting answers in clinical trials,” he said.

Nitric oxide, often called “the miracle molecule,” has other health benefits, as well. The molecule heightens brain function, especially memory, and “regulates genes,” Murad said. 

“It is going to be an exciting next 10 to 20 years to see where the research goes,” he said.

Rob Duncan, MU vice chancellor for research, said the nitric oxide research areas mentioned by Murad are of interest to MU’s translational researchers. “There are many opportunities here,” Duncan said.

Jamal Ibdah, director of the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, was largely responsible for bringing the Nobel Laureate to Mizzou. “[Murad’s] work has served as the catalyst for thousands of research papers and continues to influence how scientists worldwide study and develop drugs for a number of diseases,” Ibadah said.

A scientist for 54 years, Murad gave no hint he’s ready to quit. 

“I hope I can keep going,” he said at lecture’s end. “It’s been a fun field to see it all happen.”