The Unborrowed Vision of Stanley Prusiner

It is a rare treat to get a glimpse into the unrelenting pursuit of truth by a genius. Nobel laureate Dr. Stanley Prusiner, in his biography Madness and Memory: The Discovery of Prion—A New Biological Principle of Disease, provides such a glimpse.

The book recounts Dr. Prusiner’s painstaking struggle to uncover the secrets behind such diseases as scrapie, kuru, Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, and Mad Cow Disease, which, before his intellectual power was brought to bear on the problem, defied explanation. This chasm in scientific knowledge and the inability to isolate a traditional infectious agent from patients caused scientists to invent tortured concepts like “slow virus” and “unconventional virus.”

The book provides a detailed accounting of the mountains of evidence and data Dr. Prusiner and his associates amassed over decades of work, the inductive leaps that they justifiably made, and the converging evidence that a new infectious agent had been discovered necessitating the creation of a new concept, perfectly designated by the word “prion.”

A prion, or proteinacious infectious particle, unlike all other infecting agents, is exclusively comprised of protein and is devoid of any genetic material yet is able to replicate and cause illness.

While it may seem that Dr. Prusiner proceeding down a relatively straightforward path without many obstacles to surmount, it is far from the truth. It is almost a general, but unfortunate, principle that those who bestow new knowledge on mankind are not greeting with the fanfare that they deserve, but derision, ad hominem attacks, and persecution. Such was clearly the case with Dr. Prusiner and his unborrowed vision that propelled science and human understanding further. As Dr. Prusiner traversed the incalculable distance of an “odyssey” from “heresy to orthodoxy,” he was met with skeptics that ranged from scientific journalists to Nobel-prize winning scientists. (As a student in a virology class I vividly recall my professor expressing open skepticism). But, despite the opposition, Dr. Prusiner’s persisted. He importantly identified that “distorting my understanding to fit other people’s desires was dangerous” and that “for a scientist, the most important trait is intellectual honesty within himself.”

The story of Dr. Prusiner, who eventually was awarded with a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1997 is instructive and inspirational. It is instructive in that it concretizes how a dogged pursuit of the truth no matter where it led and what scientific dogma it ran contrary to led to an unprecedented breakthrough that caused textbooks to be rewritten. It is inspirational in that it shows how such determination, integrity, and productivity are virtues and lead to the achievement of values.

The best treat of this book is the ability to hear directly from a genius exquisitely conscious of the intellectual process that he exemplified. His description of the Nobel Prize as “a celebration of civilization, of mankind, and of what makes human unique—that is, their intellect, from which springs creativity” perfectly captures how I evaluate this book thatI recommend in the highest possible terms.