Eyes on the Prize

In 1976, when Ferid Murad discovered nitric oxide’s critical biological role, he sensed he was onto something that might win him a Nobel. He was right.

ONE OF 1998 NOBEL PRIZE WINNER Ferid Murad’s many gifts is a certain prescience. When he was twelve years old, Murad predicted that he would one day be a doctor, a teacher, and a pharmacist—and today he is all three (well, he’s a professor of pharmacology rather than your friendly neighborhood pharmacist). And in 1976, when he and his lab mates at the University of Virginia discovered that the odorless, colorless gas nitric oxide plays a critical role in the body’s cellular signaling system—helping regulate body functions ranging from the relaxation of arteries to the fighting of infections and tumors—he had a feeling he might be onto something that would one day win the prize. “The odds are so against it that most scientists don’t advertise that they think that way,” says Murad, who is the chairman of the Department of Integrative Biology, Pharmacology, and Physiology at the University of Texas—Houston Medical School. “But I knew we were onto something important.”

Many of Murad’s peers at the time weren’t quite as impressed. Indeed, for at least the next ten years, Murad’s discovery was considered, at best, mildly interesting, quirky, unimportant science. After all, before Murad’s finding, nitric oxide had been known primarily as a noxious air pollutant and a dangerous free radical (a renegade molecule associated with cancer and other diseases). “People just didn’t want to believe that this free radical could act like this,” says Murad, whose smooth, round face and slightly impish grin make him look considerably younger than his 63 years. “Nitric oxide was known for destroying things.”

Murad’s recognition came two decades after the fact, which is typical of Nobels for medicine and science, and he shares the prize with two other scientists who had performed similar research over the same period of time: Robert Furchgott of the State University of New York in Brooklyn and Louis Ignarro of the University of California—Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the subject of their research, nitric oxide (not to be confused with nitrous oxide, the laughing gas your dentist administers as an anesthetic), has become like a pop-culture phenomenon with a growing cult of acolytes who extol it as the greatest medical discovery since penicillin. The journal Science dubbed it the “Molecule of the Decade.” And it may be the only chemical gas in history to have its own fan club (the Nitric Oxide Society), official publication ( The Nitric Oxide Journal ), and Web site ( 2005/08: website is no long active. ) Finally, nitric oxide—which consists of one atom of nitrogen and one of oxygen and is called NO for short—would seem to be giving the Y2K problem a run for its money as the most scrutinized scientific topic of the decade: In the past five years NO has been the subject of an astounding 18,000 scientific studies, all exploring its role in regulating cellular activity in the body. As it turns out, NO is involved in just about everything, from blood pressure to blood clotting, respiration to digestion, retrieving memories to fighting infections. Concludes Murad: “There are very few things in the body that nitric oxide doesn’t regulate. And we are still discovering more.”

Since receiving the Nobel, Murad has given more than one hundred speeches and lectures and countless interviews. Unlike some scientists, who bristle at or shy away from all the attention, Murad seems to bask in it. He is refreshingly frank, admitting that he has always wanted to win the award, and now that he has, he thinks he deserves it. “Some other people thought that too,” he adds, flashing that impish smile.

Ferid Murad has earned the right to beat his chest a little. The eldest son of an Albanian immigrant, he grew up in a small apartment behind the family restaurant in the tiny town of Whiting, Indiana. It was not always a sure bet that he would be able to realize his dream of a career in science and medicine. His family’s finances were limited, and he had to finance a dozen years of higher education with scholarships, grants, loans, and part-time work. He married his wife, Carol Ann, just before entering medical school, so for much of that time, he was also supporting a family that eventually numbered five children.

“I knew I wanted considerable education so that I wouldn’t have to work as hard as my parents,” Murad wrote in his official biography for the Nobel Book. After graduating from Indiana’s DePauw University in 1958, he decided to pursue not only an M.D. at the prestigious Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, in Cleveland, Ohio, but also a Ph.D. in pharmacology.

Like many aspiring young scientists at the time, Murad became fascinated with the exotic new disciplines of molecular and cell biology, where the mysteries of human life were being solved at the most elemental level. He became especially interested in the processes of intercellular communication. Science already knew that such communication was initiated by hormones and neurotransmitters; now it had turned its attention to the so-called secondary messengers, those chemicals that took the instructions from the hormones and instigated several series of chemical reactions that resulted in a biological activity—the beating of the heart, a memory surfacing from the brain, the immune system releasing white blood cells to fight off an invading virus.

After graduating from Case Western, Murad kept up with the research on secondary messengers while completing his internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston; while subsequently serving for three years as a clinical associate at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, he even did a little lab work on the subject.

When he left the NIH to join the faculty of the University of Virginia in 1970, he was eager to establish a reputation in cellular-signaling research. Unfortunately, a number of projects were already under way at the school focusing on the best known of these signalers or secondary messengers, cyclic adenosine monophosphate, or cyclic AMP. (Among the most prominent were

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