Nobel laureate honored with alumnus award

Nobel laureate Louis J. Ignarro, who earned a doctorate in pharmacology from the University in 1966, received the Shideman Distinguished Alumnus Award on Thursday. Frederick E. Shideman, for whom the award was named, was Ignarro’s thesis adviser.
About 350 people attended the ceremony at the Mayo Memorial Auditorium.
Ignarro, a pharmacology professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work with nitric oxide. His work led to the development of the anti-impotence drug Viagra.
Shideman died in 1988, but his widow, Margaret Shideman, presented the award to Ignarro.
“I know Frederick is out there somewhere beaming with pride,” she said. “It’s so nice to have one of our own come back as a Nobel laureate.”
Ignarro called Shideman his mentor and credited him with a great deal of his success.
He said Norman E. Sladek, his roommate during his doctoral studies, told him, “Louie, who woulda thunk it back in ’62?”
Sladek, now a professor of pharmacology at the University, said he wished he would have known Ignarro would win a Nobel Prize so he could have been nicer to him.
“Unless you know a Nobel laureate, you put them on a level that’s almost not human,” Sladek said. “Having Louie as a roomie, you know that he puts his pants on one leg then the other just like the rest of us.”
As a student, Sladek said Ignarro had “tremendous self-discipline … and an insatiable curiosity to understand how nature and the body work.”
But Ignarro wasn’t sure about being a scientist, Sladek said. He once considered being a race-car driver.
“He wasn’t a nerd. He loved the girls,” Sladek said. “When he saw all the blond-haired girls (in Minnesota), he thought he was in heaven.” Ignarro is from an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.
Now, however, Ignarro has inspired other young scientists.
“He’s had an experience all of us would love to have,” said Sarah Donahue, a first-year pharmacology student.
“We’re looking for models,” said Laura Bardone, another pharmacology student. “His work has important implications for the future.”
Ignarro said he was in Italy on October 12, 1998, flying to Naples from Nice. As his plane landed, he saw a colleague — accompanied by airport police — standing on the runway waving a piece of paper in his hand.
When Ignarro disembarked, he was finally able to look at the document. But it was written in Swedish, and he said the first word was an entire line long.
“And I only recognized the first five letters,” Ignarro said. “N-O-B-E-L. Then I looked down and saw my name, and I just dropped down to both knees right there on the runway.”
Ignarro had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his seminal research with nitric oxide. Ignarro shared the $978,000 prize with Robert F. Furchgott of the University of New York in Brooklyn and Ferid Murad, a researcher at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston.
In 1977, Murad discovered that a naturally-occurring signal molecule he called EDRF relaxed smooth muscle cells.
In 1986, Furchgott and Ignarro were able to show that EDRF was nitric oxide, better known as a component of automobile exhaust.
“People in my laboratory would ask me: ‘Do you know what EDRF is?’ I’d say ‘NO.’ It turned out I was right all along,” Ignarro said. NO is the chemical symbol of nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide can control blood pressure, modulate behavior and poison invading bacteria and parasites, further research has revealed.
Ignarro’s work has had important implications for medicine. The most famous application is the anti-impotence drug Viagra. Viagra contains a chemical that produces nitric oxide in the body. The gas then dilates blood vessels in the penis, causing erection.
Other possible applications for nitric oxide research include treating high blood pressure and cancer.
When Alfred Nobel, who founded the Nobel Prize, developed heart disease, his doctor prescribed nitroglycerin. Nobel refused to take it, not knowing how it would affect chest pain. More than 100 years later, Ignarro’s discovery finally explained that nitroglycerin releases nitric oxide, diluting blood vessels and ending vascular constriction.
Ignarro is continuing his research with nitric oxide even as he basks in the Nobel limelight. He is now exploring the role of nitric oxide in treating cancer.