Sense of Smell Wins Nobel Prize

Medical Authors and Editors: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D. and Frederick Hecht, M.D.

Oct 4, 2004 -- Two American investigators Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck have received the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on "odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system" -- the sense of smell.

In 1991 Axel and Buck jointly discovered a very large family of about one thousand genes for odorant receptors. They have since worked independently and have in elegant, often parallel, studies they have clarified the olfactory system from the molecular level to the organization of the cells.

Dr. Axel is at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Columbia University in New York, while Dr. Buck is at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The Sense of Smell

The sense of smell has long remained the most enigmatic of our senses. The basic principles for recognizing and remembering about 10,000 different odors have not been understood. Drs. Axel and Buck have "solved this problem and in a series of pioneering studies clarified how our olfactory system works," according to the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

The Gene Family

The gene family that Axel and Buck discovered contains 1,000 or so genes. It is truly a superfamily of genes, accounting for about 3% of all human genes. The olfactory genes in this superfamily gives rise to an equivalent number of olfactory receptor types. These receptors are located on specialized cells called olfactory receptor cells, which occupy a small area in the upper part within the nose and detect the inhaled odorant molecules.