Robert Furchgott Biography (1916-)

Nationality
American
Gender
Male
Occupation
pharmacologist

Furchgott was one of three American pharmacologists who received the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries related to the role of nitric oxide as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system. His co-recipients were Ferid Murad and Louis Ignarro.

Not to be confused with nitrous oxide (a gas used in anesthesia), nitric oxide is a colorless, odorless gas that, thanks to initial work by these three Nobel laureates and a flurry of subsequent research by others, now has widespread potential including the treatment of heart disease, shock, cancer, impotence, and pulmonary hypertension--a potentially fatal condition in premature infants. In 1994, the respected journal Science declared nitric oxide as its "molecule of the year."

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Furchgott moved with his parents to Orangeburg in the same state, where his maternal grandparents lived and his fatherset up a clothing store. There, the youthful Furchgott is best remembered for his scrappy play in Orangeburg High School's 14-6 win over Rock Hill High School to win the 1931 state football championship.

He studied chemistry at the University of North Carolina and biochemistry atNorthwestern University, before accepting a professorship in pharmacology in1956 at State University of New York (SUNY), where he became department chairand performed most of the research which earned him the Nobel Prize. Since 1988, he has been a distinguished professor at SUNY.

During the 1950s, Furchgott developed a method for determining how blood vessels respond to medications, neurotransmitters and hormones, using a piece ofrabbit aorta cut in the form of a helix. This allowed him to study the effects of drugs on vascular smooth muscle. Another early contribution was his discovery that such muscle relaxes when exposed to ultraviolet light, a phenomenon known as photo-relaxation.

Furchgott's major research advance came in 1980, when he discovered a substance in the endothelium (a thin layer of flattened cells lining the inner surface of blood vessels) that caused relaxation in smooth muscle. He called thissubstance endothelium-derived relaxing factor (EDRF).

Earlier, Ferid Murad had postulated that nitric oxide and other nitrogen-containing compounds might be produced by one cell, travel through membranes, andthen regulate the function other cells. At the time, this was an entirely new concept for signaling in biological systems. After six year years of further work, Furchgott discovered that his EDRF was, in reality, nitric oxide operating as Murid had suggested. Furchgott announced this important developmentin 1986 at a scientific conference at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. At the same meeting, Louis Ignarro announced he had independently confirmedthat EDRF was nitric oxide, using spectral analysis.

Nitric oxide is now known to play a key role in many biological functions including inflammation, blood flow regulation, cell growth, smooth muscle relaxation, and preserving memory.

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