While working at the National Institutes of Health in 1967, Dr. Michael Brown and his scientific partner, Dr. Joseph Goldstein, confronted several rare and abnormal medical cases. But a case involving a six- and eight-year-old sister and brother who had been having heart attacks—in the girl’s case since age three—had the doctors perplexed.
Upon finding that the children’s cholesterol levels were 10 times higher than normal, Brown and Goldstein placed the children on a no-cholesterol diet of rice and vegetables for six months. When the diet did nothing to lower the cholesterol levels, the doctors hypothesized that the abnormally high cholesterol levels, which were blocking arteries and causing the heart attacks, were the result of genetics.
“We worked together for 10 years to solve the problem,” Dr. Brown said.
During that decade, the doctors discovered that normal people have receptors on their liver cells that remove LDL or “bad cholesterol” from the blood, but the children had mutations in their genes that prevented the receptors from moving the LDL, creating a build-up and eventually blockages.
This case led to Brown and Goldstein’s work with statin drugs and resulted in their receiving the 1985 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
“In the beginning it was difficult to keep the partnership,” said Brown, who still collaborates with Goldstein after more than 40 years. “Both of us were ego-driven people… but each of us realized there was something brilliant about the other one. And the partnership brought out something that was greater than the sum of the parts.”
In order to preserve the partnership, Brown and Goldstein—similar to the stance that John Lennon and Paul McCartney took regarding their songwriting—decided neither would take independent credit for anything that emerged.
“The idea was that if I said something brilliant on a Wednesday, it was probably because he planted the seed on a Tuesday,” Brown said. “To this day there is no way to distinguish our contributions.”
However, Brown readily admits that this long-standing medical partnership comes in second to the most important of his life, with wife and Arcadia alumna Alice Lapin Brown ’64.
On Tuesday, Sept. 10, the couple visited Arcadia University. While Dr. Brown met with students in biology, chemistry, and genetic counseling, Lapin Brown, a dedicated advocate of charter schools in the Browns’ hometown of Dallas, Texas, visited the Wissahickon Charter School in Germantown to observe two classes and speak with Kristi Littell and Jamal Elliott, co-CEOs of the school.
In the evening, Brown presented “How to Win a Nobel Prize” to nearly 300 undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of Arcadia in the Commons Great Room.
The presentation—which oscillated from witty to engaging to somber, while always remaining enlightening—contained the following steps:
- Be curious
- Train with a Nobel prizewinner
- Find a partner with whom to share the adventure
- Find a problem that fascinates you
- Find someone to pay for your work
- Work very hard
- Solve the problem
- Be lucky
- Pick the right spouse
Brown also discussed what occupies the Nobel-prize-winning partnership now: the nation’s rapid increase in obesity and diabetes. Specifically, they are trying to understand precisely how obesity leads to diabetes.
“One of the most satisfying aspects of my work—of any scientist’s work—is when the fog lifts,” Brown said. “You start out looking through a fog; then you do experiments and you try things and you start to see a little further. The fog begins lifting. Most scientists, they come into the problem when the fog is already lifted, and they are working on the details of a structure that has already been revealed. We tend to stay away from those problems; we’d rather be in the fog.”
Photos by Christina Yee ’14, Madeline Seton ’14, and Kara Wright ’14.