Two Americans and a German-American won the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for illuminating how tiny bubbles inside cells shuttle key substances around like a vast and highly efficient fleet of vans, delivering the right cargo to the right place at the right time.
Scientists believe the research could someday lead to new medicines for epilepsy, diabetes and other conditions.
The work has already helped doctors diagnose a severe form of epilepsy and immune deficiency diseases in children. It has also aided research into the brain and many neurological diseases, and opened the door for biotech companies to make yeast pump out large quantities of useful proteins like insulin.
The $1.2 million prize will be shared by James Rothman, 62, of Yale University; Randy Schekman, 64, of the University of California, Berkeley; and Dr. Thomas Sudhof, 57, of Stanford University.
They unlocked the mysteries of the cell’s internal transport system, which relies on bubblelike structures called vesicles to deliver substances the cell needs. The fleet of vesicles is sort of the FedEx of the cellular world.
When a pancreas cell releases insulin or one brain cell sends out a chemical messenger to talk to a neighboring one, for example, the vesicles have to deliver those substances to the right places on the cell surface. They also ferry cargo between different parts of a cell.
“Imagine hundreds of thousands of people who are traveling around hundreds of miles of streets; how are they going to find the right way? Where will the bus stop and open its doors so that people can get out?” Nobel committee secretary Goran Hansson said. “There are similar problems in the cell.”
Jeremy Berg, former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Md., said the prize was long overdue and widely expected because the work was “so fundamental and has driven so much other research.”
In the 1970s, Schekman discovered a set of genes that were required for vesicle transport. Rothman revealed in the 1980s and ’90s how vesicles delivered their cargo to the right places. Also in the ’90s, Sudhof identified the machinery that controls when vesicles release chemical messengers from one brain cell that let it communicate with another.
“This is not an overnight thing. Most of it has been accomplished and developed over many years, if not decades,” Rothman said.
The bulk of Sudhof’s award-winning research was conducted at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He moved to Stanford’s medical school in 2008, where he has made further advances into the pathology behind Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Rothman said he lost grant money for the work recognized by the Nobel committee, but he will now reapply, hoping the prize will make a difference in receiving funding.
Schekman said he was awakened at 1 a.m. at his home in California by the chairman of the prize committee, just as he was suffering from jet lag after returning from a trip to Germany the night before.
“I wasn’t thinking too straight. I didn’t have anything elegant to say,” he said. “All I could say was ‘Oh, my God,’ and that was that.”
He called the prize a wonderful acknowledgment of the work he and his students had done. “I called my lab manager and I told him to go buy a couple bottles of Champagne and expect to have a celebration with my lab,” he said.
Sudhof, who was born in Germany but moved to the U.S. in 1983 and also has American citizenship, said he received the call from the committee while driving in Spain, where he was due to give a talk.
“And like a good citizen I pulled over and picked up the phone,” he said. “To be honest, I thought at first it was a joke. I have a lot of friends who might play these kinds of tricks.”
“I was stunned, and I was literally speechless,” Sudhof later told reporters.
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