Nobel laureate backs pharmaceuticals tie-ups

The Nation - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

In a speech to Mahidol University in Bangkok yesterday, Nobel Laureate Kurt Wuthrich insisted that helping the poor in developing countries by funding research into new drugs is a political and ethical necessity.

“At the same time, we have to understand drug companies need money to continue their research in drug discovery.” said Professor Wuthrich in a brief interview with The Nation following the lecture co-organised by the Faculty of Science of Mahidol University and the International Peace Founda-tion.

The professor of biophysics has worked as a consultant for the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, including Hoechst, Ciba-Geigy and Novartis.

“I have always asked drug companies to use their knowledge to make drugs available to all people,” said Wuthrich, who helped develop a process that came to be known as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) among chemists and biomedical researchers.

“Not for emotional reasons, but for political reasons, biomedical research is important. It is also important to form collaborations and partnerships,” he said, adding that peaceful collaboration among developing countries is a must.

Wuthrich, born in Switzerland and winner of the 2002 Nobel Chemistry Prize, used NMR for the first time on proteins and it proved to be an effective research tool that allowed him to determine the three-dimensional structure and dynamics of proteins.

As Wuthrich explained in a presentation at the lecture, part of the “Bridges” dialogues being held by the International Peace Founda-tion, NMR cleared the way for the study of proteins in a solution – an environment similar to the living cell. Analysing proteins in such detail has led to increased understanding of the processes of life, he said.

Wuthrich spotlighted how chemical biology can be turned into a powerful tool against diseases such as CJD, or “mad cow disease”, and some of the deadliest forms of cancer, which he described as a threat to humanity.

In collaboration with other scientists from the United States and Japan, Wuthrich helped to create the new science of proteomics, which explains how proteins interact with other substances in the cell.

Scientists say this area of science, one that has exploded over the past few years with enormous implications for the pharmaceutical industry, provides a basis for super drugs based on the human genome.

In his theoretical presentation, he said the NMR method is unique, as atomic resolution structures of biological macromolecules can be determined in solution. The solution conditions can also be adjusted as they are close to the physiological milieu in body fluids such as blood and saliva.

Unlike mass spectrometry – another research tool – which only identifies molecules, NMR provides vital clues to how proteins work in our bodies and how enzymes catalyse vital reactions to help humans digest food, for example.

Scientists say that the NMR method is now routinely used in labs to develop new drugs and describe the technique as a chance to peer at the inner workings of life itself.

Wuthrich’s presentation also shed light on his personal life, a relaxing interlude amid the detailed lecture that was tailor-made for science students and teachers.

Apparently studying natural sciences has always been fun for Wuthrich, but his heart was initially set on a career as a high school teacher with plenty of time for various sports and leisure pursuits.

A slideshow portrayed him as a keen fisherman and he is a member of the Mercury Bay Game Fishing Club in Whitianga, New Zealand, which lists Ernest Hemingway among its previous members.

Arun Devnath