n 1977 Professor Ferid Murad discovered that nitroglycerin and related vasodilating compounds that increase the internal diameter of a blood vessel acted to release nitric oxide (NO), a gas that relaxes smooth muscle cells. Following this discovery, Professor Louis R Ignarro and Professor Robert Furchgott found that NO lowered blood pressure, an application that is of particular importance in the prevention of stroke and heart attack. The neurotransmitting effects of the gas on erectile tissue subsequently led to the development of the famous little blue pill Viagra. For this research identifying NO as a signalling molecule in the cardio-vascular system, the two professors and Murad received the Nobel Prize jointly in Physiology/Medicine in 1998.
Ignarro, currently a Professor in the Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine, came as a keynote speaker to the Asia Pacific Conference in Singapore on Anti-Ageing Medicine in June 2002. INNOVATION's Tan Lay Leng caught up with him to gain further insight into his work.
I: What are the implications of your research for nitric oxide (NO), and what are some of its applications to date?
Ignarro: The field of NO research started essentially in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first discovery constituted a major one that dictated future research - in other words, it showed what to look for in NO as a new therapeutic measure. My laboratory and others found that NO has protective qualities against disease not only within the cardiovascular system but also in many other organ systems.
NO lowers the blood pressure, thus preventing hypertension (high blood pressure). It also inhibits blood clotting so the body receives protection against stroke and heart attack.
Recent findings show that NO also protects the body from atherosclerosis (hardening of the blood vessels) and diabetes. We already know that it works as a very important neurotransmitter in certain organs, and this knowledge led to the development of Viagra. Deficiency of NO causes erectile dysfunction; if you can bring back NO or increase its action as Viagra does, then you can restore function to nearly normal.