October 6, 2003

American and Briton Win Nobel for Medicine


Filed at 8:07 a.m. ET

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) -- American Paul C. Lauterbur and Briton Sir Peter Mansfield won the 2003 Nobel Prize for medicine Monday for discoveries leading to a technique that reveals images of the body's inner organs.

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, has become a routine method for medical diagnosis and treatment. It is used to examine almost all organs without need for surgery, but is especially valuable for detailed examination of the brain and spinal cord.

MRI can reveal whether lower back pain is is due to pressure on a nerve or spinal cord, for example. It can give surgeons a roadmap for operations, revealing the limits of a tumor. And since MRI itself does not require physically entering the body, it can replace some procedures that patients find uncomfortable.

Worldwide, more than 60 million investigations with MRI are performed each year, and the technique is ``a breakthrough in medical diagnostics and research,'' the Assembly said.

Monday's prize honors pioneering work done in the 1970s that laid the groundwork for making MRI a useful method, the assembly said.

Lauterbur, 74, discovered the possibility of creating a two-dimensional picture by producing variations in a magnetic field. Lauterbur is at the Biomedical Magnetic Resonance Laboratory at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

``I'm surprised and very gratified,'' Lauterbur said when contacted at his home early Monday. ``In particular, I believe, I think the work has been helpful to many people, and I'm happy that has been acknowledged by the Swedish academy.''

Mansfield, 70, showed how the signals the body emits during an MRI exam could be rapidly analyzed and transformed into an image. Mansfield also showed how extremely fast imaging could be achievable. This became technically possible within medicine a decade later.

Mansfield is at the University of Nottingham in Britain.

``Well it's, I suppose, every scientist's hope (that) one day that they maybe singled out for such an honor but I must say that in my case I did think about it a few years ago, but then dismissed it,'' he told Swedish radio.

The prize for the two men is ``long overdue,'' said Sir George Radda, an MRI expert from Oxford University. ``These two people have clearly been the inventors of magnetic resonance imaging and developed it.''

The Medical Research Council, Britain's equivalent to the National Instititutes of Health, funded Mansfield's early work.

``They recognized even at the very early physics and engineering stage that this was worth supporting in the long run and it paid off,'' said Radda, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council.

``There are a lot of people who along the line contributed, like in all these cases, but they published the key papers.''

Radda noted that MRI has become very versatile, and can produce images that indicate brain functioning as well as anatomy.

``There are very people around now that haven't been in an MRI machine these days,'' Radda said. ``It turned out to be extremely useful for looking at joints and knees, the brain, the heart -- basically every organ. The difficult one is the lung.''

Essentially, MRI provokes hydrogen atoms in the body's tissues to emit radio signals, which it then detects and uses to build up three-dimensional images of internal organs.

The prize includes a check for 10 million kronor, or $1.3 million, and bestows a deeper sense of academic and medical integrity upon the winners.

There are no set guidelines for deciding who wins. Alfred Nobel, who endowed the awards that bear his name, simply said the winner ``shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine.''

The assembly, which selects the medicine prize winner, invites nominations from previous recipients, professors of medicine and other professionals worldwide before whittling down its choices in the fall.

Last year's winners were Britons Sydney Brenner and John E. Sulston, and American H. Robert Horvitz for their discoveries about how genes regulate organ growth and a process of programmed cell suicide. Their findings shed light on the development of many illnesses, including AIDS and strokes. The award for medicine opens a week of Nobel Prizes that culminates Friday with the prestigious peace prize, the only one revealed in Oslo, Norway.

The physics award will be announced Tuesday and the chemistry and economics awards Wednesday in the Swedish capital.

South African writer J.M. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature on Thursday.

The award committees make their decisions in deep secrecy and candidates are not publicly revealed for 50 years.

Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, left only vague guidelines in his will establishing the prizes, first awarded in 1901.

The only public hints are for the peace prize.

The five-member awards committee never reveals the candidates, but sometimes those making the nominations announce their choices.

Nobel watchers say there is no clear favorite for this year's Peace Prize, but some names bandied about include Pope John Paul II, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

A record 165 nominations were received by the Feb. 1 deadline. Even though the committee keeps the names secret, those nominating a candidate often announce their preference.

Other known or likely nominees include Karzai; Cuban human rights activist Oswaldo Paya Sardinas; Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng; former Illinois Gov. George Ryan for emptying his state's death row of 167 inmates; former Czech President Vaclav Havel; U2 singer Bono; and Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear scientist held captive by Israel for treason-related charges.

The awards always are presented on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.