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The NIH Director

2004 Nobel Prize

a photo of Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni

Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni

Today's announcement of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries concerning "odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system" honors two experts in the study of the sense of smell: Drs. Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck. “Their work is a classic example of how basic science can lead to major new findings that alter our understanding of fundamental mechanisms and begin a cascade of discovery that will eventually benefit many individuals,” Dr. Zerhouni said.

In 1991, Drs. Buck and Axel reported (in the journal Cell / Volume 65 (1) pages 175-187) the discovery of a large family of receptors selectively expressed in olfactory neurons, which are the cells that detect specific odors. These receptors were later shown to be the cell surface molecules that bind specific odorants, which is the first step in detection and identification.

James F. Battey, M.D., Director of NIH's National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, said, "This discovery fueled a revolution in understanding the molecular and cellular interactions responsible for the remarkably sensitive and specific detection of different odors and tastes," Since 1992, NIDCD has funded Dr. Buck for her work on olfaction.

Besides NIDCD, other NIH components involved in their work include the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases-where Dr. Axel served as an intramural scientist in the laboratory headed by Dr. Gary Felsenfeld-and the National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The prize-winning research that led to advances which are helping humans involved the careful study of small animals, especially mice and rats.

Dr. Axel is continuing his work at The Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Columbia University in New York, N.Y., while Dr. Buck is now working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash.

Of the 83 American Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine since 1945, 64 either worked at or were funded by NIH before winning his or her prize. Since 1939, there have been a total of 113 NIH-supported Nobel laureates.

This page last reviewed on February 11, 2011

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