Physician-scientist Peter Agre’s biggest research contribution to date is his discovery of aquaporins, the proteins that regulate and facilitate the transport of water molecules across cell membranes. Aquaporins are important in physiological processes such as kidney concentration and spinal fluid secretion, and play a role in several diseases as well. Their discovery in the early 1990s earned Agre the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
These days, Agre, 61, is contributing to science in slightly different ways: by addressing infectious diseases in the Third World, and by promoting scientific diplomacy.
Agre, currently the director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, is now using his basic science discoveries about aquaporins to understand the role the proteins play in the parasite that causes malaria. The goal is to find innovative ways to target and treat the disease, which causes nearly 1 million deaths annually, most of which occur in sub-Saharan Africa.
“About the year 2000, after we’d worked on aquaporins for almost a decade, we’d answered the questions we felt were most important,” Agre said in an interview in July at the Euroscience Open Forum meeting in Turin, Italy. “It was a matter of doing some translational work … . There were a lot of groups that are really good at cancer biology and neuroscience, but the Third World diseases are still largely neglected.” The shift to disease-focused research represents a return to Agre’s original humanitarian goals when he went into medicine. “It was always something I wanted to do — to get involved in Third World medicine,” he said. “I had … hoped at about age 50 to make a new direction in science in Third World diseases, human rights, and areas I felt were important.”
In the mid 2000s, Agre got involved in science advocacy and politics; he even considered a run for the U.S. Senate. He ultimately didn’t pursue a political career, but he did find a different platform a couple of years later: In 2009, he became the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS – the publishers of Science, Science Translational Medicine, and Science Careers). In that role, he traveled to Cuba, North Korea, and Myanmar as a member of scientific delegations tasked with finding common scientific ground with these countries, which are at odds politically with the United States. In an editorial in the August 25 issue of Science Translational Medicine, Agre explains how such science diplomacy can have an impact on medicine in such developing countries.
“Clinical and translational medicine represents an important arena of investigation ripe for 21st-century science diplomacy, beginning with — although by no means limited to — infectious disease research,” he and co-author Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer and director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, write. “As private American citizens, we brought a message of good will, formed by a shared interest in science and science-based solutions to problems, that would have been greeted with great suspicion if delivered by officials of the U.S. government.” Agre and Turekian conclude by noting that addressing global health needs will require scientific cooperation that transcends political borders.
Agre embraces all the aspects of his career these days. “I love the job, I love the excitement,” Agre said in the July interview. “It’s a new adventure for an old scientist.”
Listen to my conversation with Peter Agre, recorded in July at the Euroscience Open Forum meeting in Turin, Italy: