Stanley B. Prusiner, M.D., a long-time grantee of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is the recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discovery of an unusual class of infectious particles called prions. Prions are believed to be responsible for a group of diseases that include "mad cow" disease. Prusiner, who is professor of neurology, virology, and biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), has received more than 56 million dollars in research grant support from NIH during the last three decades.
"Dr. Prusiner is a pioneer in science and medicine. He introduced a truly new idea to the biology of disease... the idea that a protein can be an infectious agent," says Zach W. Hall, Ph.D., Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), which has supported Dr. Prusiner since 1975. "His work has turned a once obscure corner of medicine into an important source of new ideas about fundamental biological mechanisms." Dr. Prusiner has received additional funding from the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute for Research Resources, and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, all of which are components of NIH.
Dr. Prusiner led the work that uncovered the nature of prions (a term he coined from "proteinaceous infectious particles"). Prions are unusual infectious particles because, unlike viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, they contain no DNA or RNA. Instead, they are a type of protein normally found within cells in humans and other organisms, even yeast. In some cases, however, the structure of the prions can change into a disease-causing form. These abnormal proteins appear to convert other, normal prions to the abnormal shape. Many scientists now believe this process leads to several dementing diseases of humans, including Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Similar diseases in animals include bovine spongiform encephalopathy or "mad cow" disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep. Research suggests that a similar change in non-prion proteins may lead to the protein-containing deposits, or plaques, found in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease.
Of the 72 previous American Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine since 1945, more than two-thirds (53) either worked at or were supported by NIH before winning the prize. Since World War II, 115 scientists worldwide were previously awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. More than half of them (63) had prior support from or had worked at NIH before the award.