CRISPR Controvery And The Nobel Prize

Not too long ago, the receptor theory of neurotransmission was, well, just a theory. The opponents suggested that chemical transmission was way too slow. There was growing evidence however, that at least some synapses were purely chemical. Julius (Julie) Axelrod and colleagues demonstrated that catecholamines are taken back up after release, and he hypothesized they must be held and released upon demand. For this he won the Nobel prize* with Bernard Katz (who discovered that acetylcholine is released by nerve terminals at the neuromuscular junction) and Ulf von Euler (who demonstrated norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter of sympathetic nervous system and stored in sympathetic nerves). However, the molecular identity of the receptor for these neurotransmitters remained elusive. Several groups were trying desperately to find these receptors with little luck. One of Julie’s former trainees, Solomon Snyder**, used radioactive high affinity opiate antagonists and agonists to try to identify binding sites in the brain. Using opiates was somewhat brilliant because the pharmacological potency of the drugs was well described clinically and could be used to correlate with the in vitro binding data. Eventually he was successful, and the discovery was covered widely (and poorly) by the media as a cure for opiate addiction, which at the time was a huge problem for returning veterans from the Vietnam war. The first author on the publication, Candace Pert, was a graduate student in Sol’s lab. Depending on what account you read, she claimed 100% responsibility for the discovery, and was publicly furious she was not at least co-recipient of the Laskar Award which was given to Sol and two other opiate researchers, Hans Kosterlitz and John Hughes. It is widely believed that this controversy spoiled any chance of this discovery winning the Nobel Prize. One of several accounts of this story is highlighted in the book Apprentice to Genius: The Making Of a Scientific Dynasty.

I can’t help to think that this story mirrors the current debate over who deserves credit for CRISPR. It highlights the ugly underside of politics surrounding science. It would be nice if we were all in this for the pure benefit of mankind. However, sometimes scientists have an agenda to selfishly further their own advancement whether the reward is money or prizes***. It will be interesting to see the long-term consequences of the CRISPR pettiness.


* Of a very timely note, after winning the Nobel Prize Julie became quite active in science advocacy. When Nixon announced the “war on cancer” Julie and several other Noble laureates protested publicly and announced that this would significantly set back scientific advancements in the US. Wow, how history repeats itself.

**COI statement: My post-doctoral mentor. I also knew Candace Pert, who has since passed away.

***Axelrod and mentor Bernard Brodie discovered that the popular headache medicine phenacetin was metabolized to acetominophen and this was the active ingredient. Scientific lore muses that Axelrod predicted this on a blackboard prior to doing a single experiment. It never occurred to Axelrod or Brodie to patent this discovery, but McNeil Pharmaceuticals did and marketed it as Tylenol.   Also of note: Axelrod did not get his Ph.D. until many years later (at the insistence of his colleagues).