Nobel laureate Dr. Alfred Gilman, helped doctors better understand cancer
“Always hire people who do something useful better than you do . . . Life will be much more interesting and you will be much more successful, if you define success as actually getting something done,” once wrote Dr. Alfred Gilman. Gilman, a Dallas-based researcher, employed many students and scientists in his labs as he researched the innermost workings of cells in the body, work that led to the Nobel Prize. His research led to radically new understandings of how cells worked and ultimately inspired other scientists to develop new techniques in medicine and important advances in cancer research.
The future Nobel laureate was born Alfred Goodman Gilman in Connecticut in July 1941. His father was Dr. Alfred Zack Gilman, a Yale University professor and researcher who was respected throughout the medical community for his important writings on the study of pharmacology and early studies of chemotherapy as a cancer treatment. When he was young, the family moved to White Plains, New York, a suburb of New York City, where his father worked as a professor at Columbia University.
As a young man, he inherited his father’s fascination with science. After graduating high school, he enrolled at Yale University. He graduated with a bachelors degree in biochemistry in 1962. He entered graduate school at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. He was reluctant at first to get a doctorate in pharmacology, the study of drugs, their effects, and their interactions, as he wanted an identity somewhat separate from his father. He was talked into it and was swept up by the research and new discoveries unfolding before him and obtained a medical degree as well by 1969.
He worked briefly as a researcher for the National Institutes of Health. In 1971, Gilman took a position as a pharmacology professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine where he published articles on cellular chemicals. He was hired in 1981 to become the chairman of the pharmacology department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Gilman discovered what became known as a “G protein,” which helps cells “communicate” with each other on a chemical level, helping a chemical message received from one cell activate a chemical reaction within the receiving cell in response, also called a transducer. Through his research, scientists were able to better understand how cells received information from each other, processed those messages, and acted in response.
In a series of experiments in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he began working with lymphoma cells and noticed the unusual properties they had on the molecular level. In lymphoma cells, the cell itself could receive chemical signals from other cells but could not produce chemicals or enzymes in response. In the process of becoming cancerous, the cell had lost the protein that allowed it to process outside instructions. Once a G protein was re-introduced into these cells, they could process these chemicals and produce new chemicals in response. While this did not change a cancer cell back into a healthy cell, scientists better understood how cancer behaved in the body.
In other words, Gilman’s work identified how cancer cells changed on a molecular level and how cancer cells and healthy cells interacted with each other. This proved an important breakthrough as researchers began researching new cancer treatments at the cellular and genetic levels. Once they better understood how cancer cells formed, mutated, and spread, they began to find ways to more accurately target cancer cells with chemotherapy and radiation therapy as well as developing new surgical techniques. As doctors and researchers applied these new ideas in the 1980s and 1990s, cancer survival rates began to climb significantly. Further, scientists could also develop better techniques and medications for a variety of diseases since they better understood how damaged cells worked.
The breakthrough was so important that Gilman and biochemist Dr. Martin Robdell, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1994 for their discovery of the G protein and subsequent research into it. Gilman noted with some humility, “You can expect to have some good luck if you are working hard on a tractable problem and taking reasonable approaches. The trick is to recognize good luck when it happens. . .” The research by Gilman and Robdell spurred dramatic changes in medical research.
In 2004, he was promoted to dean of the medical school and eventually rose to vice-president by 2006. He retired in 2009. Gilman had long been thankful for the opportunity to learn from a number of Nobel Prize winners during his years in college and as a young researcher. In his later years, Gilman became an outspoken advocate of science education in Texas schools and condemned efforts to dilute teaching of evolution in public schools. For a scientist such as Gilman who had spent his career researching cells on the molecular level, evolution was obvious. And understanding evolution was critical to research in modern medicine and genetics. He died in 2015 at age 74.
Research has allowed medicine to cure many diseases that were once death sentences. As medicine progresses, the most important element in any treatment or vaccine is hope.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.