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NO News Is Good News for Medicine Nobelists

Three U.S. researchers learned yesterday that they will share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering that the gas nitric oxide (NO) acts as a messenger molecule in the body. The find led to the development of the popular impotence drug Viagra and offered hope for new blood pressure and tumor treatments.

The $975,000 prize will be divided equally among pharmacologists Robert Furchgott at the State University of New York in New York City, Louis Ignarro at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Ferid Murad at the University of Texas Medical School, Houston, for their discovery of how nitric oxide can pass a signal from one cell to another. Because NO is such a simple molecule--it is a common pollutant in car exhaust fumes--scientists were amazed by its sophisticated functioning.

In 1986, Furchgott and Ignarro independently presented their work showing that NO worked as a signaling factor in blood vessels, thereby triggering research worldwide. It was later found that NO tells blood vessels throughout the body to relax, which in turn lowers blood pressure and increases blood flow. Murad, meanwhile, discovered that nitroglycerin, a long-standing treatment for heart disease, works by releasing NO from cells. White blood cells also use the gas to defend against tumors.

The award has already sparked controversy. Strict rules prevent the Nobel committee from awarding the prize to more than three people, but critics say the committee overlooked key researchers. In particular, the decision not to include pharmacologist Salvador Moncada at University College London drew fire from senior scientists. Rudi Busse, a nitric oxide researcher at the University of Frankfurt, said he was "exceedingly surprised" that Moncada, who carried out key experiments when he worked for the Wellcome Foundation in the 1980s, had not been included.