Lucky Stan

Attending the spring meeting of the Society for General Microbiology in sunny Harrogate earlier this week I had the chance to hear Stanley Prusiner deliver the SGM Prize Lecture on “Prion biology and diseases”. Not bad as talks go, though he would never win prizes for the design of his slides.

Prusiner won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine back in 1997 for his work to establish the prion hypothesis. It was ground-breaking stuff: self-replicating proteins that caused neurological disease. He had to fight his way through plenty of adverse, not to say derisive, opinion to get published and funded. In his talk he swept though this early work quite quickly to bring us up to date on more recent progress. Some of the assays they do are staggeringly long, involving as they do monitoring the disease symptoms in infected mice for more than 600 days. And I thought crystallography was slow!

Prusiner (left) receives his prize from the King of Sweden

But the most engaging segment came at the end when he allowed himself to be philosophical about winning his Nobel. For the benefit of the younger members of the audience he offered a few thoughts on what it takes to be a winner (a subject I have touched on before). His contention is that it is better to be lucky than brilliant, since luck has a big role to play in bringing your work to prominence.

He cited his own work on prions as a case in point. He had started out thinking that the disease-causing agent was some kind of tough but slow virus; if it had been, the work would have been interesting but hardly earth-shattering. The prion proteins could have been a bit less abundant in brain tissue; if so, they would have been undetectable using the techniques available to Prusiner at the time. He might have made the discovery 10 years earlier; if he had, it would have been too early to pursue the topic in any depth until molecular biology techniques were better developed. He might have been scooped by another scientist working on the same thing (something that happens all too commonly); if so, that would have been that.

And then in the early ‘90s BSE and vCJD erupted dramatically in the UK, bringing prion diseases to massive but unwelcome prominence, and Prusiner’s work very much into the public eye. The rest, as they say, is mystery history.

So there’s hope for all of us. Well, it may be too late for me (or Jenny?). But before all you young’uns start relaxing and waiting for great good fortune to roll up, let me mention that Robin Weiss, who presented Prusiner with his SGM prize, recalled in his remarks Pasteur’s maxim: chance favours the prepared mind.

Now get back to work!

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6 Responses to Lucky Stan

  1. Caryn Shechtman says:

    it is better to be lucky than brilliant
    I have noticed talk of this nature is very common among the Nobel Prize winners I have seen. Perhaps they are just being humble or is actually the truth (i.e. the prepared mind). In actuality I really think it is BEST to be lucky AND brilliant, which I can only hope for.

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    I suspect many laureates (and others) are aware of deserving colleagues who never got the call. In any case the Nobel is no guarantee of the correctness of your ideas, so maybe that encourages a certain restraint. In Prusiner’s case I think there were not a few who felt that a Nobel for the prion hypothesis was at best premature, but the theory seems to be holding up.

  3. Graham Steel says:

    Lucky Stan indeed.
    The Game of the Name is Fame. But is it Science?
    Stanley Prusiner, “discoverer” of prions
    Whilst I missed his 30 min talk at Neuroprion 2007 in Edinburgh by about an hour, it was rather memorable. During Q & A, a prion researcher from Australia publicly questioned his prion only hypothesis and Prusiner exploded (not literally, unfortunately) in front of the 800 delegates present. Why the fuss, Prusiner??

    There was a young turk named Stan Who embarked on a devious plan. “If I simply rename it, I’m sure I can claim it,” Said Stan as he pondered his scam.
    “Eureka!” cried Stan, “I have found it. Well . . . maybe not actually found it. But I talked to the press Of the slow virus mess And invented a name to confound it!”
    Quoting from Gary Taubes’s “Nobel Gas” published in the 1986 issue of Discover magazine. Full article

    Whilst I don’t question that the infectious prion agent is involved in the TSE disease process, are prions the sole cause or just a symptom? Cue Steel’s slideshare presentation

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the links Graham. The Discover article is very interesting and gives another good example of how messy real science can be. If the article is accurate, it would seem Prusiner is rather adept at playing the PR game. But the ongoing controversy also shows how incredibly hard it can be sometimes to get convincing data to support a hypothesis.

  5. steffi suhr says:

    I just came across this NYT article, which mentions how Richard Semon described an ‘”engram”:‘, the trace an experience leaves in the brain, in 1904… without knowing what exactly it was. I bet this is common in science.

  6. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the link Steffi. Sounds like a definition that is still in search of an explanation…
    It doesn’t seem to have had the traction of Prusiner’s prion. He gave a talk at Imperial last year in which he tried to explain the thinking behing his neologism. He wanted a short, two-syllable word with impact – like virus, he said, or quark. That latter choice had me scratching my head – I can only hear one syllable in quark. Then, to add to my confusion – and slight irritation – he attributed quark to Lewis Carroll, though in actual fact it was coined by James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake.
    But I digress. It does seem as if he had a eye on making some good PR for his project…

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