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Swiss scientist brings home chemistry prize

Wüthrich at work - he unravelled the structure of prion proteins linked to mad cow disease

(Keystone)

Switzerland is hailing Kurt Wüthrich as the seventh Swiss scientist to bring home the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

The Nobel committee said there would be "no modern pharmaceuticals" without the work of Wüthrich and two other joint recipients of the award.

Wüthrich takes one half of the prestigious $1 million award, with the other half being divided equally between the United States scientist, John Fenn, and Japan's Koichi Tanaka.

The three scientists share the award in recognition of their research into the development of powerful tools to study large molecules such as proteins.

Groundbreaking research

"Their work has paved the way for the future finding of a cure for cancer," said Bengt Norden, chairman of the Nobel committee for chemistry.

All three have developed techniques that can be applied to the early diagnosis of cancer, as well as the monitoring of sports doping and the analysis of environmental pollution.

The 64-year-old Wüthrich - who currently divides his time between laboratories in Zurich and California - is credited with developing a tool which allows scientists to see three-dimensional images of proteins and understand how they function in cells.

His research has led to new drugs, and promising applications have been reported in areas such as the early diagnosis of breast and prostate cancer, as well as malaria.

Joy of winning

Responding to news of his award, Wüthrich said he was "overjoyed and surprised" to have won a Nobel prize.

"It's great...just great," he told swissinfo.

"I've had so many people calling me that I haven't yet had to worry about what's going on in my head," he joked.

Explaining the purpose of his research, Wüthrich said he hoped it would contribute to a "deeper understanding of the mechanisms of life and...to finding out new ways of countering the malfunctioning [of such mechanisms]".

"This is definitely a dream come true," he commented.

Wüthrich is soon due to retire from the post he currently occupies at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, but will continue to conduct research in the United States.

"I have already started a new laboratory in California, and I am sure that this money - as well as the prestige which goes with the prize - will greatly help to make my transition a smooth one," he explained.

Day of celebration

Wüthrich said he had been inundated with messages of congratulation from both within and outside the scientific community.

The Swiss interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, said the award was important both for Switzerland and for the work of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich as a whole.

Dreifuss admitted that scientific research in Switzerland had been starved of funds in recent years, and she pledged to make sure more cash was available in the future.

Thomas Cueni, general secretary of Interpharma - the umbrella organisation representing the Swiss pharmaceutical industry - said the prize should help ensure the country remains in the top league of cutting edge scientific research.

The last Swiss to win the chemistry prize back in 1991, Richard Ernst, told swissinfo that Wüthrich's research had produced enormously important information for the understanding of biomedical processes.

"He has investigated those prions which are said to be responsible for BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob's disease," Ernst explained.

The Nobel laureate said Wüthrich's prize - the fifth for the Federal Institute of Technology - was proof that it could still produce world-class research.

"It is an assurance that the Federal Institute has a high esteem worldwide and can attract the best scientists from around the world," he said.

The prizes will be presented to the winners at a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

swissinfo

Key facts

Kurt Wüthrich shares the 2002 Nobel Prize for Chemistry in recognition of his research into protein molecules.
One of Wüthrich's key achievements was the decoding of prion proteins - implicated in BSE in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
The last Swiss to win the chemistry prize was Richard Ernst in 1991.

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