When the Nobel Foundation announces its list of prize-winners, there are often grumbles that seminal work was overlooked. Last year's award of the medicine prize has provoked something more: an open letter to the award committee signed by more than 250 neuroscientists. They claim the neurologist who discovered the cause of Parkinson's disease--and developed a treatment still in use--deserved the award.
The prize went to three researchers for their work on how nerve cells exchange signals. Much of this research involved basic questions of how neurotransmitters act on neurons, but the Nobel Foundation's announcement pointed to the relevance of such work for treating Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders.
That's where the problem arose, according to some of those who signed a letter that will appear in the spring issue of Parkinsonism & Related Disorders. Neurologist Oleh Hornykiewicz of the Brain Research Institute of Vienna University Medical School discovered that a lack of dopamine in the brain causes Parkinson's, and he came up with the dopamine-replacement therapy still used today. The letter states that he "should have been included in this Award."
"Everyone was surprised" that Hornykiewicz didn't receive the Nobel Prize last year, says neuroscientist John Hardy of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Hornykiewicz's work "fundamentally changed how neuropharmacology is practiced," he asserts.
The letter writers and signatories acknowledge that the Nobel Foundation can't reverse its decision or even respond to the letter, and they know the committee can only honor three people per prize. Although the letter doesn't make it explicit, some signatories suggest the 2000 Nobel Prize should have focused on the impact of neurotransmitter research on treatments for neurological disease, and Hornykiewicz and neuroscientist Arvid Carlsson of Göteborg University in Sweden, who discovered dopamine, should have shared the prize.