A Nobel Adventure in Sweden

Post date: Jun 16, 2015 12:54:9 AM

On a warm, sunny afternoon in early August 2006, a convoy of taxis drove up the flower-lined driveway leading to Thorskogs Grand Manor House near Gothenberg, Sweden. Inside the cars were 29 excited and perhaps a little awe-struck scientists from nine countries. They were arriving to spend four days as guests of Sweden’s prestigious Nobel Foundation. One of them was Ormond MacDougald, Ph.D., a professor of physiology in the U-M Medical School.

The scientists had been invited to Sweden to present the latest findings from their research on fat cells called adipocytes. But this was much more than just another talk at a scientific meeting. This was the 134th Nobel Symposium. The scientists were the best in the world in their field, and the audience included the chairman of the committee that awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

“I was honored to be invited,” MacDougald says. “Certainly it was the most important scientific meeting I’ve ever attended and probably will be the most important of my career.”

A quiet, modest man who is uncomfortable being in the spotlight, MacDougald didn’t tell his U-M colleagues that he’d been invited to one of the world’s most exclusive scientific conferences. But when someone spotted the impressive leather folder stamped “Nobel Symposium” on his desk, the news started to get around.

The Nobel Foundation has sponsored symposia since 1965. They focus on areas of leading-edge science where breakthroughs are occurring or on topics of major cultural or social significance. The goal is to bring a small group of the world’s best researchers together to talk about their work in a relaxed, private setting.

Sven Enerbäck, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of medical genetics at Gothenberg University, submitted the proposal to the Nobel Foundation and chaired the symposium’s organizing committee. “It was a lot of work,” he admits. “But it was great to have the resources to organize a meeting on your favorite topic.”

For Enerbäck, MacDougald and the other scientists at the symposium, nothing is more fascinating than adipocytes. For a long time, these cells were considered little more than repositories where the body stores excess calories as fat. But recently scientists have learned that adipocytes secrete hormones which regulate how the body metabolizes glucose and reacts to insulin. Defective adipocytes can lead to diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, liver disease and cardiovascular disease. So understanding how these cells develop and function in the body will have a major impact on medicine and public health.

For a meeting devoted to fat cells, the symposium participants spent a great deal of time eating. The Manor House is well-known for its outstanding cuisine and MacDougald says the scientists enjoyed lavish breakfasts, lunches and an elegant five-course formal banquet with wine and caviar.

When they weren’t eating or meeting, the scientists could play golf, hike through the forest, shoot pool, play croquet, soak in a hot tub or hang out in the bar. Only one activity was off-limits. Manor House staff, apparently concerned about ending prematurely the career of a possible future Nobel Prize winner, drew the line on letting the scientists try out the two-headed Swedish throwing ax.

“They weren’t keen on us using it,” says MacDougald, with a smile. “They told us we needed an instructor and there was no one available.”

But in spite of all the diversions, the group spent most of its time talking about science. “Lots of collaborations were formed or renewed,” MacDougald adds. “I learned of a new competitor. We talked extensively about his findings and our findings — where there would be overlap and where we would pursue independent approaches.”

To make the trip even more memorable, MacDougald was accompanied to Sweden by his wife, Annie, and 11-year-old son, Austin.

—Sally Pobojewski