Nobel Ambition

January 12, 2011

Pioneering scientist Ferid Murad has big plans for his new lab at GW, including grooming Nobel Prize winners.

By Danny Freedman

Nobel laureate Ferid Murad, on campus this week for the announcement that he will be joining the GW faculty this spring, outlined an ambitious slate of research he plans to take up at the university.

But, he admits, he’ll have something else on his mind, too: lineage.

Dr. Murad holds the torch for a Nobel tradition: One of his mentors, Earl W. Sutherland Jr., was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1971. And Dr. Sutherland’s mentor Carl Cori also won a Nobel, in 1947.

“I’ve trained almost 150 people in my laboratory over the years,” Dr. Murad said Tuesday at an event formally introducing him to faculty, staff and students, “… and I tell them that one of them has to get the prize.”

So far, it hasn’t happened. “One of my goals is to identify that next generation here at George Washington,” he said. “So I want all your best students to come knocking on my door so I can get involved with them and help.”

Dr. Murad will begin work at the university in April, assuming the title of university professor—GW’s highest academic rank—within the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

He currently is at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where he holds several titles, including director emeritus of the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases.

The announcement marked a “very special day in the history of our university,” said GW President Steven Knapp. Dr. Murad, he said, “brings to George Washington University deep experience in academic medicine, research, industry and entrepreneurship.”

GW Provost Steven Lerman said the renowned biochemist’s presence will be “an honor that elevates both the stature of his department and the prestige of the entire university.”

Dr. Murad and two other researchers shared the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1998 for their work elucidating the role of nitric oxide in the cardiovascular system, where as a gas it aids communication between cells.

“At the time, this was an entirely new concept for signaling and biological systems,” said Jeffrey Akman, interim dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences and vice provost for health affairs.

The researchers’ work, he said, helped reveal the role of nitric oxide in numerous functions throughout the body, from inflammation to blood flow regulation to cell growth. And that knowledge has been “critical to understanding numerous diseases and conditions,” he said, “including ischemia, hypertension, pulmonary hypertension in neonates, diabetes, arthritis, septic shock, cancer, gastrointestinal disorders and neuropsychiatric disorders, to name a few.”

Dr. Murad said his research has been about probing the unknown, taking risks. “I think that’s what it’s all about. You do something that’s never been done before—that’s research. … And if you’re really, really lucky it turns out to be important, and there’s no way to know that when you get started.

“There’s no way to determine [if] what you’re working on is going to result in a Nobel Prize,” he said. “It comes as a surprise 20 years later.”

He said he was looking forward to working at GW—“a complete campus with undergraduate students and chemists and engineers and medical folks all in the same place,” an environment he last enjoyed at Stanford University more than 20 years ago.

Dr. Murad outlined three projects from his recent research endeavors that he’s planning to pursue at the lab he’ll establish at GW:

—Extending the life expectancy for people with glioblastoma, “a very aggressive, nasty” brain tumor. Dr. Murad said his work has shown that when these tumor cells are manipulated and then implanted into the brains of mice, the animals live four times longer—84 days, up from 21. “Can we do that with humans? I don’t know,” he said. “I hope so.”

—Altering the biochemistry of embryonic stem cells in order to form heart cells and brain cells. His team has done this to some degree, he said, but if they can do it consistently it could help usher in a day when specialized cells for brain or heart repair, or even organs for transplant, are grown in laboratories.

—Further developing a compound that appears to block the lethal bouts of diarrhea caused by cholera and E. coli, infections that kill some 2 million people each year in developing countries, according to Dr. Murad. “The best therapy to date is oral rehydration therapy,” he said, “... but in order to use that as therapy you need clean water that’s not infected. So I think we need some other approaches.”

Dr. Murad also plans to teach a course for undergraduates, which he said would be a joint effort with the medical center’s Rakesh Kumar, chair of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department, who is credited with helping recruit Dr. Murad to GW.

Both Dr. Murad and Dr. Kumar will lecture, but they also plan to bring in a who’s who of researchers from “all aspects of science,” said Dr. Murad, who plans to call on some of his fellow laureates.

“When you have a Nobel Prize it becomes like a club,” he said, “because you run into each other all over the world.”

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GW Welcomes to Faculty Nobel Laureate in Medicine, Dr. Ferid Murad