Perl Today, Tomorrow Nobel?

The aural difference between Tar Heel territory and the Hollywood hills of LA is the ubiquitous thwack of bounced basketballs in neighborhood driveways  versus the clack of computer keyboards well into the night.

 In that west coast capital of  schadenfreude, where legions of hopeful screenplay scribblers take secret delight in another’s failure,  the odds against fame and fortune, an Oscar on the mantle, are very high.  

Indeed, uncertainty with a dose of mystique abounds, driving some writers to despair, to drink, to fortune tellers, gurus,  or into the arms of those of whom it’s rumored have the contacts, power or chutzpah to make it all happen.

Not so for academic bench scientists, yes? Few , including those of the biomedical stripe,  are in it for fame and Nobel laureateship.  After all, it’s doing the work one loves.  And besides, who has time to obsess on  laurels when getting a grant, getting published, running a lab, teaching classes, preparing a paper, mentoring students, etc., etc.,  etc., round one’s days… and sleep.

But for those who might dream the big dream in a serious way,  here’s a tip worth considering: the road best traveled toward Stockholm’s big kahuna  may involve first taking home from Chapel Hill the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize.

Since its inception in 2001,  four of eight Perl prize recipients have received Nobel gold. 

Really. Amazing, you say.  But what is this Perl prize? Well, it’s a $10,000 award in recognition of a seminal achievement in neuroscience.

Dr. Edward R. Perl, who endowed the prize, is Sarah Graham Kenan professor of cell and molecular physiology at UNC School of Medicine. Thirty or so years ago, he was the first to prove that a particular class of nerve cells (now called nociceptors) responds to stimuli that are perceived as painful. These cells now are targets of extensive efforts to find drugs that block their function.

Previous Perl prize awardees were David Julius from the University of California at San Francisco; Roderick MacKinnon from Rockefeller University; Linda Buck from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle; Richard Axel from Columbia University; Roger Tsien from the UC San Diego; Roger Nicoll from UC San Francisco; Rob Malenka from Stanford; and Huda Y. Zoghbi of Baylor College of Medicine. 

Of this list, MacKinnon, Buck, Axel and Tsien were subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for their pioneering efforts.

No research slouches here. Take Tsien, who was last year’s Nobel winner for chemistry. Back in 2005, the  selection team for the 5th UNC-Perl previously noted the wide variety of tools he developed for optically monitoring stucture and function of cells and molecules in the nervous system, including calcium indicator dyes, genetically coded protein biosensors and modifications to green fluorescent protein, or GFP.

Given the Perl prize numbers, bookies who annually tout the Nobel may perk up their ears and their odds. In a few weeks or so, the 9th Perl winner will be announced.  (You’ll read all about it here.)

And in September, the Stockholm short  list just may carry another winner of the Perl.

Les Lang


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