19: Dr. Lou Ignarro: Nobel Prize Recipient on the Health Benefits of Nitric Oxide

Dr. Louis Ignarro overcame humble beginnings before rising to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1998. Although he was a naturally curious child, he struggled in school and overcame barriers to achieving his dreams. 

“My mom and dad were completely uneducated, formerly. They were born in Italy, moved to Newark and then Brooklyn,” says Ignarro. “They never went to school, not even the first grade in elementary school. So I had a tremendous handicap because my English was poor when I started in the first grade.”

Despite falling behind in language skills he was still driven to ask questions and investigate the things that interested him.

“When I was a child, I was always driven to accomplish something. I always had to find something to do. My parents would tell me to please sit down and keep quiet and stop asking questions. But I couldn’t do that. I was always motivated to accomplish something.” 

Finding his place in science

In fact it was his innate curiosity and time with his family that attracted him to science. 

“It’s very clear in my mind, it began as a result of watching fireworks displays. Every weekend or so there would be a fireworks display. My parents would take my brother and I to watch this. And I was fascinated with it. I decided that I had to learn to make firecrackers and rocket fuel and all this sort of stuff.”

While Ignarro realized he was destined for a life in science, Despite achieving high marks in chemistry and math, his marks in English and history almost kept him from pursuing an education in the field. 

“When I was in high school, I decided there’s no question about it. I want to get an education and training and chemistry. And the best school nearby in New York City was Columbia. So I went to see my advisor or career counselor in high school in my junior year. And he said, ‘Uh, sorry, Lou. But, you know, you’ll never get into Columbia with your lousy grades. So you need to apply, you know, to some state college or somewhere else.’”

The drive to succeed

After a tremendous amount of work, he was able to turn his grades around and was given a chance to study at Columbia. While Ignarro knew he wanted to work in medicine, he also knew that research was his main area of interest.

“I was highly motivated to unravel the answers as I proceeded onward. And that is why I chose a career in basic research.  I could have been a physician, but I didn’t want to, because I wanted to do original research. I wanted to make discoveries instead of just taking care of people.” 

After completing university and medical school, Ignarro began his career in industry, hoping to discover new drugs, but he realized he wanted to teach. Moving from industry to academia as an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at Tulane University. This move allowed him to teach and take up research that interested him. 

“Drug companies want you to work in a specific area to help develop a drug for the company. So you’re not doing your own original research. So I went into academics and that worked out so well. And that is when I got interested in studying and doing research on this molecule called nitric oxide.”

His discoveries helped to uncover the beneficial effects of nitric oxide in preventing cardiovascular disease, as well as other benefits for the human body. In 1998, he and his co-recipients, Ferid Murad and Robert F. Furchgott, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system.

Tune in to the 40-minute podcast, to learn more about Dr. Ignarro’s journey, including: 

  • His struggle to publish studies on Nitric Oxide (NO) 
  • How NO protects us against hypertension, strokes and heart attacks  
  • How his work influenced the marking of Viagra 
  • And the new research around how inhaling nitric oxide helps the body combat the novel coronavirus 

Be sure to follow Dr. Ignarro on Instagram, and Facebook and learn more about his findings and research on his website here

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