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Nobel Prizes Related to Cardiology

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, administered by the Nobel Foundation, is awarded once a year for outstanding discoveries in the fields of life sciences and medicine. Below is a chronological list of those Nobel Prize Awardees whose contributions have been capital for the advancement of Cardiovascular Medicine and Research.

1912. Alexis Carrel

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Vascular suture and transplant of blood vessels and organs

The circulatory system, which plays a key role in transporting substances throughout the body, consists of the heart and blood vessels. During the first decade of the 20th century, Alexis Carrell developed methods for sewing blood vessels together. These were very significant for surgery and allowed new ways of studying health problems. It also laid the groundwork for transplant surgery. For a long time, transplants were impossible because the immune system would reject transplanted organs, but medications later made them possible.

1924. Willem Einthoven

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Discovery of the mechanism of the electrocardiogram.

In the later half of the 1800s doctors discovered that heartbeats create weak electrical currents on the body's surface. A diagram showing how these currents vary (an electrocardiogram or ECG) provides a picture of how a heart is functioning. Willem Einthoven developed doctors' ability to depict the heart and its parts, functions, and illnesses using ECGs. One key to this progress was the string galvanometer, which precisely measures tiny currents, constructed by Willem Einthoven in 1903.

1953. Hans Adolf Krebs

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Discovery of the citric acid cycle (Krebs Cycle)

Nutrients are broken down in our cells to release energy for the construction of cells. After Albert Szent-Györgyi identified several important reactions in these metabolic processes, in 1937 Hans Krebs was able to present a complete picture of an important part of metabolism - the citric acid cycle. In this process, which is cyclical and has several steps, nutrients are converted to other molecules with a large amount of chemical energy. The latter are ultimately converted into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which provides chemical energy to facilitate other biochemical processes in the cell.

1956. Werner Forssmann, Andre Cournard, Dickinson W. Richards

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Discoveries concerning heart catheterization and pathological changes in the circulatory system

In 1929 the physician Werner Forssmann saw a picture in a book showing how a tube was inserted into the heart of a horse through a vein. A balloon at the other end of the tube showed changes in pressure. He was convinced that a similar experiment could be carried out on people. Despite the fact that his boss forbade him, Werner Forssmann conducted the experiment on himself. From the crook of his arm he inserted a thin catheter through a vein into his heart and took an X-ray photo. In 1929, there was great hesitance about continuing this type of research. Nonetheless, beginning in 1941 Dickinson Richards and André Cournand published a series of studies that established use of cardiac catheterization, among other things, to introduce contrast fluid for X-ray images and to measure pressure and oxygen content. Because it was possible to reach the upper chambers of the heart, blood pressure and the blood's oxygen content could be measured on the way from the heart to the lungs, which was impossible before.

1960. Frank Burnet and Peter Medawar

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Discovery of acquired immunological tolerance

Our immune system protects us against attacks by microorganisms and rejects foreign tissue. Part of our immunity has a hereditary basis, but part of it is acquired and is not present in the fetus. After Macfarlane Burnet theorized that the ability to distinguish between one's own and foreign tissue is acquired during the fetus stage. Peter Medawar successfully transplanted tissue between mouse fetuses without rejection in 1951. He could perform new transplants on the mice when they became adults, something that did not work when the transplants were not performed during the fetus stage. The results had significance for organ transplants.

1964. Konrad Bloch and Feodor Lynen

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Discoveries concerning the mechanism and regulation of the cholesterol and fatty acid metabolism

Cholesterol is an important component in the body's cells and plays a major role in several biochemical processes. Konrad Bloch and Feodor Lynen and their respective colleagues investigated how cholesterol and fatty acids are formed and converted in the body. Among other things, they showed that acetic acid is an important component in cholesterol and how the formation occurs in reactions with many steps. This knowledge is important for an understanding of heart disease and other illnesses in which changes in cholesterol formation can play a role.

1979. Allan Cormack and Godfrey Hounsfield

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Development of computer assisted tomography

The discovery of X-rays and the possibility of obtaining images of the body's interior quickly led to medical applications. The possibilities of X-ray technology were further expanded with computed tomography (CT). If X-rays are sent through the body from different angles and registered when they have passed the body, images of different cross sections are created through advanced computer calculations. Around 1957 Allan Cormack developed the necessary methods of calculation.

During the 1960s Godfrey Hounsfield developed an apparatus in which clusters of X-ray beams sent through the body from different angles are registered when the have passed the body. These also provide a basis for three-dimensional images.

1982. Bengt Samuelsson, Sune Bergström and John Vane

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Discoveries concerning prostaglandins and related biologically active substances"

Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that control several important processes in the body. They are also active when the body is attacked.

During the 1960s and 1970s Bengt Samuelsson showed in detail how prostaglandins form from unsaturated fatty acids and how they are converted. He also mapped different types of prostaglandins, such as endoperoxides, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes. Bengt Samuelson's research has been important in the development of drugs used to treat many ailments, such as blood clots, inflammation, and allergies.

In the 1950s Sune Bergström succeeded in producing pure prostaglandins and in determining the chemical structures of two important examples, PGE and PGF. He also showed that these are formed through the conversion of unsaturated fatty acids. Prostaglandins are used as medicines; for example, to trigger contractions during childbirth, induce abortions, or reduce the risk of gastric ulcers during treatment using other pharmaceuticals.

In 1971 John Vane showed that acetylsalicylic acid, a substance found in pain-relieving and fever-reducing medications like aspirin, works by inhibiting the formation of prostglandins. In 1976 he discovered the prostacyclin prostglandin, which expands the smallest blood vessels and, unlike certain other prostglandins, inhibits the formation of blood particles called platelets that cause blood to coagulate.

1985. Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Discoveries concerning the regulation of cholesterol metabolism

Cholesterol is an important component in the body's cells and plays an important role in several biochemical processes. Too much cholesterol in the blood can cause problems, however, by forming strictures in blood vessels. In 1973 Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein discovered the receptor, or receiver, in cells that takes in cholesterol and clarified how the conversion of cholesterol is regulated by our genes and other substances. The discoveries became the basis for statins, medications that reduce cholesterol levels in the blood.

1988. James Black, Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Discoveries of important principles for drug treatment

Many of the body's processes are controlled by substances known as hormones. These are absorbed by the cells of receptors on the cell's surface. The hormone adrenaline causes the heart to pump harder and blood pressure to rise. At the beginning of the 1960s, James Black developed the drug propranolol, which is a beta-blocker that has a calming effect on the heart by blocking the receptor for adrenaline. At the beginning of the 1970s he developed the drug Cimetidine that suppresses the formation of gastric acid and is used to fight ulcers.

George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion's research revolutionized both the development of new pharmaceuticals and the field of medicine in general. Previously, pharmaceuticals had primarily been produced from natural substances. During the 1950s, George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion developed a systematic method for producing drugs based on knowledge of biochemistry and diseases. One of the first drugs produced by the pair was for leukemia and helped many children with the disease to survive. Other drugs they created have been used to fight malaria, infections, and gout, as well as help with organ transplantations.

1990. Joseph Edward Murray and Edward Donnall Thomas

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Discoveries concerning organ and cell transplantation in the treatment of human disease

The human body has many different organs with different tasks. If an organ is unable to perform its task, a person cannot live normally without external help. Because the immune system rejects foreign bodies, transferring organs from one person to another was long thought impossible. However, in 1954 Joseph Murray avoided rejection using radiotherapy and immunosuppressants, successfully transplanting a kidney between identical twins. This paved the way for other organ transplants.

Donnall Thomas developed methods of providing new bone marrow cells for people through transplants. Using radiation and chemotherapy, the body's own bone marrow cells are killed and the immune system's rejection mechanism is subdued. Bone marrow cells from a donor are then provided through a blood transfusion. At the end of the 1960s, the first human bone marrow transplants were carried out.

1998. Robert Furchgott, Ferid Murad and Louis Ignarro

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Discoveries about nitric oxide

Ever since the days of Alfred Nobel, it has been known that nitroglycerin causes blood vessels to expand. Ferid Murad studied how nitroglycerin activated an enzyme that formed cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP), which in turn caused blood vessels to expand. In 1976 Ferid Murad was able to show that nitroglycerin produced this effect by emitting nitrous oxide (NO). The discovery represented a new principle for transferring signals between cells; a gas as a signal-transferring molecule had never been observed before.

Since the 1970s researchers have understood that the role of the innermost layer of blood vessels, the endothelium, goes beyond protection. In 1980 Robert Furchgott showed that the ability of blood vessels to contract or expand disappeared if the endothelium was removed. He concluded that a substance that causes expansion was formed in this layer. In 1986 he and Louis Ignarro, independently of each other, demonstrated that this substance was nitrous oxide (NO). The discovery has made possible new medications, such as those used to treat heart and cardiovascular diseases and impotence.

2003. Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Work: Discoveries concerning magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Atomic nuclei within a strong magnetic field rotate with a frequency depending on the strength of the magnetic field. Their energy can increase if they absorb radio waves with the same frequency (resonance). When atomic nuclei return to their previous energy status, radio waves are emitted. These discoveries were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1952. In the beginning of the 1970s, Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield made pioneering contributions, which later led to the applications of magnetic resonance in medical imaging. Paul Lauterbur discovered the possibility to create a two-dimensional picture by introducing gradients to a magnetic field. Analysing the characteristics of the emitted radio waves he could determine their origin. This fact made it possible to build up a two-dimensional picture of structures that could not be visualized by other methods. Peter Mansfield further developed the utilization of gradients in the magnetic field. He showed, that the signals could be mathematically analysed, which made it possible to develop a useful imaging technique. Magnetic resonance imaging, MRI, is now a routine method in medical diagnostics. Worldwide, more than 60 million investigations are performed each year, and the method is still rapidly evolving.

For sources and more information: Nobel Prize, Medicine Laureates