Obituaries

Alfred G Gilman

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i463 (Published 26 January 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i463
  1. Ned Stafford, Hamburg
  1. ns{at}europefn.de

Pharmacologist and biochemist who shared 1994 Nobel prize for discovery of G proteins and the role of these proteins in signal transduction in cells

With a brand new medical degree and doctorate in pharmacology and not yet 30 years old, Alfred G Gilman faced the first major hurdle on his medical research journey that would result in his winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

It was 1970, and Gilman was doing postdoctoral training at the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The hurdle blocking Gilman’s path was his boss, Marshall Nirenberg, who had shared the Nobel Prize in 1968 for “interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis.”

Gilman later recalled that after a “truly boring project that mostly involved counting axons sprouting from cultured neuroblastoma cells,” he had taken the initiative to gather “proof of concept data for a ligand binding assay for cyclic AMP (adenosine monophosphate).”1 Cyclic AMP is a so called second messenger that has fundamental roles in cellular responses, often referred to as signal transduction.

Gilman was proud of his work, feeling that development of a “sensitive assay for cyclic AMP” was “badly needed” to advance investigations of cells. Nirenberg was not impressed. He told Gilman to stop the assay project and resume counting axons. “There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that this superb scientist was wrong,” Gilman recalled. …

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