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!
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
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!