"There are some social issues we're considering, including scientists who are being persecuted around the world and in the United States," said Dr Peter Agre of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, on Wednesday.
 
Agre cited the criminal case of Texas plague expert, Thomas Butler, who has been charged by federal authorities after he reported he lost some plague samples. Prosecutors said he illegally transported samples from Tanzania and lied to the FBI about how he disposed of them.

The case, born out of security restrictions imposed on scientists after the 11 September 2001 attacks, has already brought a number of prominent scientists to Butler's defence, saying he did nothing different than other scientists. Butler has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.

"He was arrested and taken away in chains ... This is something that's bothered many of us," Agre said.

The Minnesota native says he was inspired by chemist and activist Linus Pauling, who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1954, and then the Nobel Peace prize in 1962 for his campaign to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. Pauling was a friend of Agre's father, who was a chemistry professor.

Critical discovery

Agre, 54, who will share the $1.3 million Nobel prize with Dr Roderick MacKinnon of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at New York's Rockefeller University, discovered in 1988 the membrane protein, or channel, through which water passes in and out of human cells. MacKinnon, 47, discovered the cellular channel for ions.

"I was in my pyjamas at 5.30am when I got a call from Sweden. It didn't seem to be a joke, and life has been pandemonium-struck ever since"

Dr Peter Agre,
biochiemist

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has said the discoveries are critical to science's understanding of the human body, which is about 70% water, and diseases of the kidneys, heart, muscles and nerves.
 
Agre's contribution specifically has led to an entire series of biochemical, physiological and genetic studies of water channels in bacteria, plants and mammals.

"I was in my pyjamas at 5.30am when I got a call from Sweden. It didn't seem to be a joke, and life has been pandemonium-struck ever since," Agre said. "People have been pouring champagne in our kitchen since 6am. My goal is not to drink any until this evening."

Agre received his medical degree in 1974 from the Hopkins medical school, where he is professor of biological chemistry and medicine. He has been teaching at the school since 1984.