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Nobel winner keeps Baltimore in mind

THE BALTIMORE SUN

STOCKHOLM, Sweden - In the hallowed history of the Nobel Prizes, no laureate's formal Nobel lecture has culminated quite like this.

Dr. Peter C. Agre had just presented an erudite, hourlong explanation of his discovery of aquaporins, the microscopic water channels in our cells that make life possible, to a distinguished audience at Stockholm University.

"To show the extent of celebrity this brings ... ," Agre said, introducing his final slide, a snapshot from Baltimore's York Road:

"WELLS DISCOUNT LIQUORS," the store's sign said. "CONGRATS DR. AGRE."

"This sign usually advertises cut-rate beer," Agre said. And 500 professors and students forgot their Nobel dignity, and the huge Swedish-modern Aula Magna amphitheater echoed as they roared their appreciation.

When the Johns Hopkins University researcher was awakened at 5:30 a.m. Oct. 8 by a call from the Swedish capital giving him very good news, he stepped unawares into another dimension.

His surreal ride through scientific celebrity will reach its splendid climax today, when Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf Folke Hubertus hands him a gold medal bearing Alfred Nobel's image and a diploma good for about $700,000. That's Agre's half of the 2003 chemistry prize he shares with Dr. Roderick MacKinnon of Rockefeller University in New York.

Introducing Agre's Nobel lecture, Bengt Norden, chairman of the Nobel committee for chemistry, said Agre's 1991 identification of aquaporins was "intimately connected with the question, 'What is life?'" He called it " ... a decisive discovery that opened the door to a whole series of biological, physiological and genetic studies of water channels in bacteria, mammals and plants."

But the relentlessly humble 54-year-old physician and biochemist, who salted his slide show with photos of students and collaborators who he said should share the credit, emphasized the serendipitous nature of his find.

He slipped in a slide of a painting of an elderly blind man, feeling his way forward with a cane, and declared, "That's where we entered, following a well-known scientific approach known as pure, blind luck."

Since the call from Stockholm, Agre says, he has felt a little like Chance, the character played by Peter Sellers in the movie Being There - a simple gardener whose random pronouncements are pored over with the deepest seriousness by professors and politicians.

"Expectations are so out of whack with reality," Agre says. "People want my opinion on all kinds of things I know nothing about."

Agre joked with President Bush about large families when his wife, Mary, and their four children filed into the Oval Office with other relatives. He was surprised by radio storyteller Garrison Keillor, a fellow Minnesotan with Norwegian roots, who learned Agre was in the audience at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and improvised:

Here's to Dr. Agre from Johns Hopkins U

Who did something no other chemist could do

He isolated the membrane protein that facilitated the transport of water into and out of the cell

And in the end, he won a Nobel. ...

Even Jinx, the family dog, has appeared on Swedish TV.

And best of all? "In my whole life since my kids became teen-agers," Agre says, "this is the first time they've come home and said, 'Dad, my friends think this is so cool.'"

On the other hand, Agre received threatening letters from an anonymous white supremacist that prompted Hopkins to provide extra security. He has coped with a professor at a Romanian university who believes he discovered water channels and whose Web petition to that effect has drawn the signatures of more than 400 Romanians.

(Though most other scientists say Professor Gheorghe Benga's claim is groundless, Agre responded with magnanimity: In his Nobel lecture he twice went out of his way to mention Benga's research.)

Since arriving Saturday in Stockholm, Agre has been mobbed by autograph collectors and waylaid by international television teams. Scientists from around the world have lined up to consult him about aquaporins and their role in everything from kidney disorders, to brain swelling in deadly strokes, to cataracts and the root systems of plants.

Responding to an Italian reporter, he expressed dismay at what he called a "miscarriage of justice" - the federal prosecution of his former teacher, Dr. Thomas C. Butler of Texas Tech University, in a bioterrorism scare over missing vials of plague that ended in a conviction for tax fraud.

Asked at a news conference about his favorite times in science, Agre skipped back two decades from the aquaporin breakthrough and recalled the group of friends who helped ignite his love of research during medical school at Hopkins.

"There was a surfer from Hawaii, a conservative Jew from Brooklyn, a Palestinian refugee, a Spanish antiwar activist, an Italian actor. ... We were an odd assortment of people brought together by science," he said.

A man who rarely dons any tie back home at his lab in East Baltimore (where he has moonlighted occasionally as a prize fight doctor for renowned trainer Mack Lewis ever since medical school), Agre has now donned elegant suits and was fitted for white tie and tails in advance of today's award ceremony.

Though he prefers a bicycle, Agree has been chauffeured to glittering receptions and formal dinners in a sleek black limousine provided by the Nobel Foundation. Although his fondest memories involve backpacking and canoe trips from New Mexico to Manitoba, here he's making do in a $500-a-night suite in Stockholm's very grand Grand Hotel.

"Thank God for dynamite," Agre says, in appreciation for the invention that permitted Alfred Nobel to endow the prizes.

The logistics of Nobel Week, a festive tradition in Sweden and an antidote to cold, gray days that emerge with a dusky dawn about 9 a.m. and darken by 4 p.m., are daunting for all laureates. This year, they include three Americans, two Russians, two Britons and a South African.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian activist, will get her prize in Oslo, Norway today, in accordance with Nobel tradition.

But Agre, like the groom at a very large wedding, has faced especially complex logistics because of the size of his entourage. It includes not only his wife and kids - Sara, 25, and her fiance, Jason Watson; Claire, 23; Clarke, 18, and Carly, 14 - but also his mother, Ellen, 78, three of his five siblings, a dozen colleagues and students from Hopkins, and a variety of old medical school buddies and scientific collaborators from several countries.

"The hardest thing is getting the right people to the right place at the right time in the right clothes," said Mary Agre, who missed her husband's official news conference Sunday while she rushed back to the Grand Hotel to retrieve his forgotten laptop computer.

For their children, the whirl of events has established - possibly for the first time - that their dad's research obsessions weren't just parental eccentricities, but truly remarkable.

At a Hopkins party in the same gilt Grand Hotel ballroom where the first Nobel banquet was held in 1901, Clarke Agre, a freshman at Hampshire College, remarked: "Before this, I didn't take his work all that seriously. I mean, someone would say, 'This is good coffee,' and he'd start explaining aquaporins."

To keep the entourage on schedule, the Swedes have put the Agre clan in the hands of Carl Cederstrom, a 34-year-old foreign service officer whose regular job is tracking developments in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

He applied to be a "Nobel attache," he says, because he wanted to meet brilliant scientists and learn more about the prizes that do so much to define Sweden's public face.

At least partly thanks to Cederstrom's skillful shepherding, Agre says, he's enjoying this wild week. But at times, the man who "always identified more with Huck Finn than Albert Einstein" feels overwhelmed by the attention.

A couple of weeks ago at a Washington hotel, Agre confessed with a rueful smile to having "an emotional meltdown" when he discovered he'd forgotten the shirt studs and cufflinks he needed for a black-tie dinner for American Nobel winners at the Swedish Embassy.

Mary calmed him, and he got through the crisis - fellow chemistry laureate MacKinnon came up with extra studs and an embassy press aide scavenged some cufflinks. Agre felt better about his own absent-mindedness when medicine laureate Paul Lauterbur showed up without a bow tie.

But after a warm-up for his Nobel lecture at Hopkins, when a colleague approached to suggest an intriguing issue for research, Agre said: "I'm looking forward to getting through all this hoopla and travel and getting back to science. Because that's a great problem."

Asked between events about how he has weathered the past two months, Agre replied: "The whole Nobel thing is terrific. But there are times when you just want to be left alone. You value the quiet times. Just riding your bike in the country. Going to the movies with your wife."

He said he takes comfort in anticipating what he insists will be a rapid return to relative obscurity.

"It's a prominent but very short-lived fame," he said. "Ask yourself: Who won the Nobel for chemistry last year?"

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