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Health, Medicine, and Science - Moravian College

Anatomy of a Breakthrough

Nobel Prize winner Peter Agre describes his discovery of aquaporins.

Photos by john kish iv

Peter Agre, M.D., winner of the 2003 Nobel

Prize in Chemistry, visited Moravian College

October 2 to speak about the “Joys and Tears

of Life in Medical Science.” Before the talk,

Dr. Agre met with Moravian medical science alumni,

pre-medical science students, and faculty members at a

reception in Collier Hall of Science.

Dr. Agre is president of the Board of the American

Association for the Advancement of Science, the nation’s

largest scientific organization. He was awarded

the Nobel Prize for his discovery of aquaporins,

proteins in cell membranes that regulate the flow of

water. He currently serves as the director of the Johns

Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, where his research

focuses on the structural and functional characterization

of aquaporins in relation to malaria. He holds two

U.S. patents on the isolation, cloning, and expression

of aquaporins, and is the principal investigator on four

National Institutes of Health grants.

Aquaporins, which are found in red blood cells,

renal tubules, the epithelium of the brain, and various

structures of the eye, are being investigated for

their potential role in the prevention or treatment of

glaucoma, nephrogenic diabetes, cystic fibrosis, brain

edema, congestive heart failure, and more.

Dr. Agre described his discovery of aquaporins

and the significance of the Nobel Prize during his

talk at Moravian:

“I was very fortunate. Dr. Victor McKusick

at Johns Hopkins offered me a tenured assistant

professorship and the focus of my work changed to

diseases affecting the newborn. I worked on the basis

of the Rh blood group antigen, which was then unknown

at the molecular level. This was just twentysome

years ago. We [Dr. Agre and his lab team]

figured out a way to identify it and purify it. It was

a big, confidence-building activity, and we published

our work in prominent journals. We later co-purified

it, and by total accident, there was a contaminating

molecule unrelated to Rh, but about the same size.

“This protein was fascinating. It didn’t stain

well. No one had ever seen it before. And when we

were able to quantify it, we found it was one of the

most abundant proteins in the membranes of cells.

We were able to obtain enough protein to get the

sequence. And the sequence was similar to some proteins

identified in the roots of plants, and the brains

of insects—none of them functionally defined. I was

curious. What could this be

“I talked to dozens of scientific friends and colleagues

about this new protein, which was also found

in red cells and renal tubules in mammalian tissues.

But we had no progress.”

While returning home from a Florida vacation

with his family, Dr. Agre stopped in Chapel Hill,

North Carolina. “I called ahead to my friend and

mentor, John Parker, a clinical hematologist at UNC.

In addition to being a fine physician, John had a

small but excellent lab where he studied the physiology

of red cells. I told him about this protein, which

seemed to be membrane-spanning and channel-like

in structure.

“John thought for a minute, leaned forward, and

said, ‘Peter—red cells, renal tubules, tissues in plants.

14 MORAVIAN COLLEGE MAGAZINE FALL 2010

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