By Makenzie Winter
Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine, Dr. Louis Ignarro, spoke at the Catholic University of America Biology Symposium last week about his work on nitric oxide and finding one’s passion.
For students, Ignarro stresses the importance of choosing an area of study that one is passionate about. “You’ve got to find something you really enjoy doing,” said Ignarro. “You have to find your niche. You should gather in as much background information as you can of what you want to study.”
He presented his lecture, The Road To Stockholm—A Noble Mission, which entertained hundreds of the Catholic University community, including students, faculty, and staff at the Edward J. Pryzbyla Center in Great Room B.
His passion for learning and science started when he received his first chemistry set at the age of eight.
“I wanted a chemistry set to make firecrackers,” said Ignarro. “I loved fireworks and rocket fuel. Using the manual, I would perform litmus tests. Then I would add clear solutions together and out would come a clear white precipitate. That was mind boggling to me. I had to keep doing it more and more. I also used to find dead animals in the street and dissect them.”
Ignarro, 76, is a pharmacologist and was a professor at University of California, Los Angeles and Tulane University. Ignarro is originally from New York and comes from an Italian family. He is an avid cyclist as well as a runner of 14 marathons. He attended Columbia University as an undergraduate and completed graduate school at University of Minnesota. Before beginning his teaching career, Ignarro worked for the National Institutes of Health, where he did research on the functions of the cardiovascular system. As a professor, Ignarro won numerous teaching awards, including the AMSA Golden Apple Award.
Many of the awards were given to Ignarro by his students, which reflects his passion for teaching and education.
“The teachers I had in my early education were about as effective as that wall,” said Ignarro, who now lives in Beverly Hills, California. “They had the opportunity to teach subjects that were incredible, but they couldn’t do it. I always said to myself, ‘If I ever go into academics, that I am going to teach and I’m going to do it well.’”
His inquisitiveness lead him to pursue higher education, combining his interests in biology and chemistry to study pharmacology.
Ignarro and his colleagues, Robert F. Furchgott and Ferid Murad, won a Nobel Prize in 1998 for their studies on nitric oxide. He explained that nitric oxide is a unique signaling molecule that is widespread throughout the body, which lowers elevated blood pressure, improves blood flow, and inhibits blood clotting. According to Ignarro, nitric oxide had been discovered in Stockholm at the Alfred Nobel factory, where workers were exposed to nitric oxide, which provided immediate relief to those with previous chest pain, or angina. However, how nitric oxide functioned in the body was yet unknown.
With further research, Ignarro discovered that nitric oxide is a molecule that exists within the human body. Nitric oxide allows for smooth muscles in the body to relax, preventing heart attacks, diabetes, and stroke. In his lecture, Ignarro stressed the importance of nitric oxide in the body. One may increase levels of nitric oxide in the body by maintaining a healthy weight, diet, and exercise.
In addition to treating chest pain, nitric oxide was later found useful for treating erectile dysfunctions, leading to the production of drugs, such as Viagra. The nickname, “Father of Viagra,” has often been attributed to Ignarro. Although Ignarro dislikes the nickname, he jokes that while he had discovered the use of nitric oxide in 1986, he did not win the Nobel Prize until after the marketing of Viagra took off in 1998.
On October 14, 1998, Ignarro, Furchgott, and Murad won the Nobel Prize in medicine. After receiving the prize, Ignarro met with President Bill Clinton and was invited to be on the NIH subcommittee to help manage the budget for research projects in the United States. There he fought to increase the budget for research and made a case for continued funding.
“Do you realize that only in America could the son of an uneducated carpenter receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine,” said Ignarro. “Unlike other countries, we have the money for the research. Don’t take that money away from us.”
Students found him much more entertaining than they expected.
“It was very informing,” said Sarah Alleyne, freshman biology major. “I don’t have a huge chemistry background, but Ignarro managed to explain a complex topic in a simple way so that you could understand. I also thought he (Ignarro) did it in a very succinct and entertaining way, so I liked it a lot.”
Tanasha Gedeon, junior psychology pre-med major said, “I didn’t expect someone like him to be so funny and charismatic.”
When asked if he still researched, Ignarro was pleasantly honest.
“These days,” said Dr. Ignarro. “I read books and I drink a lot of wine.”
Staff writer Jimmy Cassidy ’18 contributed to this story.