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If you like Louis Ignarro's story, you might also like:
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Linda Buck,
Gertrude Elion,
Judah Folkman,
Robert Langer,
Robert Lefkowitz,
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and Andrew Weil

Louis Ignarro's
recommended reading: Gray's Anatomy

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Louis Ignarro
Louis Ignarro
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Louis Ignarro Biography

Nobel Prize in Medicine

Louis Ignarro Date of birth: May 13, 1941

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  Louis Ignarro

Louis Ignarro was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised nearby in the coastal city of Long Beach, one of two sons of working class immigrant parents from Italy. His father worked as a carpenter while his mother worked at home until her sons were grown. Although both parents lacked formal education, they impressed the importance of learning on both of their sons. From an early age, Louis was fascinated by gadgets and machinery. When he was eight years old his parents gave him his first chemistry set and he immediately worked through all of the possible experiments. He built on this rudimentary knowledge with frequent trips to the library, reading everything he could about chemistry and biology. He applied his burgeoning knowledge of chemistry to making explosives and building rockets, while he augmented his knowledge of anatomy by dissecting dead animals that fell into his hands.

Louis Ignarro Biography Photo
For a time, his interest in science had to compete with a passion for building cars and drag racing, but when he won admission to Columbia University, his interest in science won the day. Although his first academic interest was chemistry, his father urged him to enter Columbia's pharmacy school so he would have the option of working as a pharmacist while pursing his other interests. Louis Ignarro entered the pharmacy school at Columbia, while taking all of the chemistry courses he could. Following his father's advice, he worked in pharmacies for two summers during his studies, but the daily filling of prescriptions bored him, and he was convinced that a career in research and teaching was more to his liking. An undergraduate course in pharmacology particularly intrigued him, and following his graduation from Columbia in 1962, he earned his master's and doctoral degrees in pharmacology at the University of Minnesota.

At Minnesota, Ignarro's studies focused on learning how the neurons of the heart produce norepinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter associated with concentration. He also made an intensive study of enzymology with Dr. Paul Boyer, who would receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1997. Ignarro's doctoral research was published in the form of four separate articles in a single issue of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, an unusual achievement for a researcher at any stage of his career.

Ignarro, who was now married and starting a family, undertook a postdoctoral fellowship in clinical pharmacology at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At NIH, he conducted research into the chemistry of adrenergic receptors, the molecules of the cell that respond to the hormone adrenaline. In 1968, Ignarro joined Geigy Pharmaceuticals, heading their research program in anti-inflammatory agents. His work at Geigy led to the development of a new NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) Diclofenac. While there, he also performed his first studies of cyclic guanosine monophosphate (GMP), one of the components of the RNA molecule. When Geigy merged with Ciba Pharmaceuticals in 1973, Ignarro returned to academic research as an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.

Louis Ignarro Biography Photo
At Tulane, Ignarro was teaching his medical students the use of nitroglycerin in treating heart disease when one of them raised a perplexing question. In the body, nitroglycerin is known to relax the smooth muscle tissue of the blood vessels, but how it does so was unknown. Since nitroglycerin is also an explosive, the student asked if there was any connection between these two functions. Ignarro knew there was not, but the mystery of nitro's vasorelaxant effect continued to intrigue him and he decided to pursue the matter.

A 1977 paper by Ferid Murad of the University of Texas demonstrated the effect of nitric oxide and various nitro compounds, including nitroglycerine, on the levels of cyclic GMP in vascular tissue. Ignarro was already familiar with a connection between GMP levels and vascular dilation, and he began to consider the possibility that nitric oxide, mediated by GMP, was the component of nitroglycerin that dilates blood vessels.

In 1979, Ignarro published his first findings, demonstrating that nitric oxide clearly produces the vasorelaxant effect. His next task was to unravel the mechanism by which the muscles convert compounds such as nitroglycerin into pure nitric oxide. Ignarro published the results of this study in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics in 1981. A question that remained was why the blood vessels of human beings and other mammals should be so receptive to a substance, nitric oxide, which we know in nature as a toxic gas, an air pollutant, and one component of a powerful explosive. Was it possible that the cells of the body themselves produce nitric oxide in small quantities? The introduction of nitric oxide from outside the body might be elevating the natural response of blood vessels to an agent already present in the body. Robert Furchgott of the State University of New York had independently discovered the presence of a mysterious EDRF (endothelium-derived relaxing factor) that naturally occurs in the blood vessels. In 1984 Ignarro demonstrated that this EDRF was, in fact, nitric oxide.

Louis Ignarro Biography Photo
The following year Dr. Ignarro, recently divorced, moved from Tulane to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine. He continued his work on nitric oxide at UCLA, demonstrating that nitric oxide is the neurotransmitter responsible for the erectile response in mammals, including human beings. It was soon discovered that impotence (erectile dysfunction) is caused by an impaired GMP pathway for processing nitric oxide. Ignarro's research led to the creation of the first effective drugs for erectile dysfunction -- Viagra, Levitra and Cialis -- as well as nutritional supplements that improve cardiovascular health and athletic performance. Ignarro himself is an avid cyclist and runner, who has completed more than a dozen marathons. His books on health and nutrition include No More Heart Disease and Health is Wealth. In 1997 Ignarro married Sharon Williams, an M.D. anesthesiologist he met while working at UCLA.

In 1998, Dr. Ignarro's achievement was honored with the Nobel Prize in Medicine, an honor he shared with his fellow researchers Ferid Murad and Robert Furchgott. Today, Dr. Ignarro is Professor Emeritus at UCLA Medical School, where for many years he held an endowed chair in pharmacology. Since retiring from UCLA, he has served as a consultant and advisory board member for numerous health and nutrition companies including Herbalife. Louis Ignarro and Sharon Ignarro have homes near UCLA and in nearby Malibu, California. Dr. Ignarro has one daughter by his previous marriage.

This page last revised on Aug 31, 2015 21:26 EDT
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