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Swiss shares Nobel Prize for chemistry

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

(Keystone)

Swiss scientist Kurt Wüthrich is one of three winners of this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his research into protein molecules.

Wüthrich took one half of the prestigious award, with the other half being jointly shared by John Fenn of the US and Koichi Tanaka of Japan.

The three were chosen for their research into biological macromolecules, such as proteins, which has led to a better understanding of the processes of life.

The 64-year-old Wüthrich takes half of the $1 million prize for his work in developing analytical methods for studying such molecules.

Responding to the news, he said he was "overjoyed and surprised" and "happy that the prize is coming to Switzerland".

He added that he would use the prize money to build a new laboratory in the US.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said that, thanks to his work, "researchers can now rapidly and simply reveal what different proteins a sample contains".

A key achievement of Wüthrich was the decoding of prion proteins - implicated in BSE (or mad cow disease) in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans.

The Swiss interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, congratulated Wüthrich, and said the award was important for both Switzerland and the Zurich Federal Institute of Technology, where Wüthrich is based.

Promising

The Swedish Academy said his methods had revolutionised the development of new pharmaceuticals and had promising applications in a number of fields, including foodstuff control and early diagnosis of breast and prostate cancer.

"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. "Without it, there would be no modern pharmaceuticals."

Wüthrich is Professor of Biophysics at Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology, and Visiting Professor of Structural Biology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

He told the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation that he intends to build a lab in the US because, being close to the official Swiss retirement age of 65, he cannot continue in full time employment at home.

The last Swiss to win the Chemistry prize was Richard Ernst in 1991.

Also based at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, he was awarded the prize for his contribution to the development of the methodology of high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

BSE research

Ernst told swissinfo that Wüthrich's NMR research has 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 and that an important contribution he has made based on this technology."

Ernst said that the Nobel 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," Ernst told swissinfo.

"There have been five scientists who got the Nobel prize while they were working at the Federal Institute - three of them were foreigners and Wüthrich and myself were the only Swiss."

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

The umbrella association for Swiss business, economiesuisse, said it hoped Wüthrich's award would prompt the government to invest more in research.

Spokesman Roberto Colonello said the prize should also strengthen Switzerland's international reputation as a research centre.

The prizes will be presented to the winners 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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