The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1997

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1997 was awarded to Stanley B. Prusiner “for his discovery of Prions – a new biological principle of infection.”

Stanley B. Prusiner

Born: 28 May 1942, Des Moines, IA, USA

Affiliation at the time of the award: University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, CA, USA


The 1997 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded to the American Stanley Prusiner for his pioneering discovery of an entirely new genre of disease-causing agents and the elucidation of the underlying principles of their mode of action. Stanley Prusiner has added prions to the list of well known infectious agents including bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Prions exist normally as innocuous cellular proteins, however, prions possess an innate capacity to convert their structures into highly stabile conformations that ultimately result in the formation of harmful particles, the causative agents of several deadly brain diseases of the dementia type in humans and animals. Prion diseases may be inherited, laterally transmitted, or occur spontaneously. Regions within diseased brains have a characteristic porous and spongy appearance, evidence of extensive nerve cell death, and affected individuals exhibit neurological symptoms including impaired muscle control, loss of mental acuity, memory loss and insomnia. Stanley Prusiner’s discovery provides important insights that may furnish the basis to understand the biological mechanisms underlying other types of dementia-related diseases, for example Alzheimer’s disease, and establishes a foundation for drug development and new types of medical treatment strategies.

In 1972 Stanley Prusiner began his work after one of his patients died of dementia resulting from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). It had previously been shown that CJD, kuru, and scrapie, a similar disease affecting sheep, could be transmitted through extracts of diseased brains. There were many theories regarding the nature of the infectious agent, including one that postulated that the infectious agent lacked nucleic acid, a sensational hypothesis since at the time all known infectious agents contained the hereditary material DNA or RNA. Prusiner took up the challenge to precisely identify the infectious agent and ten years later in 1982 he and his colleagues successfully produced a preparation derived from diseased hamster brains that contained a single infectious agent. All experimental evidence indicated that the infectious agent was comprised of a single protein, and Prusiner named this protein a prion, an acronym derived from “proteinaceous infectious particle.” It should be noted that the scientific community greeted this discovery with great skepticism, however, an unwavering Prusiner continued the arduous task to define the precise nature of this novel infectious agent.

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