Scientists win Nobel for mapping body's 'cell traffic' system

STOCKHOLM/CHICAGO Mon Oct 7, 2013 7:42pm EDT

1 of 10. Yale University Professor James Rothman, 62, the co-awardee of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Medicine, arrives to a standing ovation before attending a press conference at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, October 7, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Adrees Latif

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STOCKHOLM/CHICAGO (Reuters) - Three scientists won the Nobel medicine prize on Monday for plotting how cells transfer vital materials such as hormones and brain chemicals to other cells, giving insight into diseases such as Alzheimer's, autism and diabetes.

Americans James Rothman, 62, Randy Schekman, 64, and German-born Thomas Suedhof, 57, separately mapped out one of the body's critical networks in which tiny bubbles known as vesicles enable cells to secrete chemicals such as insulin into the surrounding environment.

This cellular machinery, which has evolved over a billion years, is so sensitive that slight malfunctions in the mechanism can cause serious illness or death.

"Through their discoveries, Rothman, Schekman and Suedhof have revealed the exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo," the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said in a statement when awarding the prize of 8 million crowns ($1.2 million).

Their research on how cells transport material around sheds light on how insulin, which controls blood sugar levels, is made and released into the blood at the right place at the right time. Diabetes and some brain disorders have been attributed at least in part to defects in the vesicle transport systems.

The scientists' work explains an "absolutely essential" component of cell biology that helps scientists understand how the brain or hormone secretion works, said Dr. Jeremy Berg, who for years worked as director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a part of the National Institutes of Health, which underwrote much of the research.

"It's one of the prizes for which there is not a treatment that came out of it directly, but there are probably literally thousands of laboratories around the world whose work would not be taking place the way it is without their work," said Berg, who is director of the Institute for Personalized Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Nobel committee said the work could help in understanding immuno-deficiency and brain disorders such as autism.


"Their discoveries could perhaps have clinical implications in psychiatric diseases, but my guess is that they will be more useful for the understanding of how cells work," said Professor Patrik Rorsman of Oxford University.

Schekman, a geneticist, first became interested in how proteins move within cells in 1974. At the University of California, Berkeley, he began working on yeast, a single cell microorganism. Research showed his findings applied equally to human cells.

Among Schekman's research aims is to study whether the accumulation of the protein amyloid in the brains of Alzheimer's disease patients is due to disruption of the vesicle system.

Suedhof, a neuroscientist, has focused particularly on the brain and questions of human thought and perception, emotions and actions determined by signaling between neurons, cells which constitute the foundation of the nervous system.

"My major interest is in trying to understand how neurons in the brain communicate - how these processes get established during development, and how they become impaired in autism and schizophrenia," Suedhof said in an interview.

Suedhof said the work was really about "cell traffic," the ability of cells to move material around.

Medicine is the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year. Prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 in accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.

"My first reaction was, `Oh, my god!`" said Schekman, who was woken with the good news. "That was also my second reaction," he added, according to a University of California, Berkeley, statement.

Schekman said in an interview that his work was born out of a desire to understand how it was possible for one cell to talk to the other. He said figuring that out would help deepen understanding of how the brain works, "one of the most important questions in biology today."

Suedhof said while he and his fellow prize winners had worked separately they had met each other "many, many times." They had "argued and sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed," he said with a laugh.

(This story is refiled to amend sixteenth paragraph to read University of California, Berkeley instead of Berkeley University)

(Reporting by Stockholm Newsroom; Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Alistair Scrutton, Ralph Boulton and Ross Colvin)

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Comments (6)
drauckerr wrote:
I’m wondering exactly who funded this research? Were there public grants involved? Was it paid for by the Universities out of the tuition paid by students? And, more importantly, how do those who provided the funding for this non-education work that occurred at an educational institution going to be compensated?

As I understand it, a Nobel prize comes with a substantial amount of money. Will that money go to the professors, whose were could not have been performed had they not been affiliated with those particular institutions? Will the money go to the institution and be used to reduce the cost of tuition? And if they work was the result of government grants, will the findings be entered into the public domain so there are no licensing fees or royalties paid by others who don’t have similar backing?

Oct 07, 2013 9:46am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Howard60 wrote:
The work will have been funded by government grants and possibly charitable foundations not out of tuition. It is the job of these bodies to fund excellent research- they will have been pleased with the outcome. Having Nobel laureates on the faculty increases the prestige of the University. They would be foolish to ask for the prize money as that would hinder recruitment of the best scientists and the $400K that was each scientists share would not go far. The University gains prestige and money from this- in grant funding and tuition.
The work would obviously have to be in the public domain otherwise nobody would know about it and they would not get a prize. Try searching PubMed using the authors names and you will find references to the publications in which this work is embodied.

Oct 07, 2013 10:52am EDT  --  Report as abuse
What a welcome leap in science and medicine!

A little known associated discovery is the role of a ‘dedicated’ protein which governs the growth of cancer cells, in particular.

A current functioning trial study is underway with targets the “cancer protein.” At least in one of the “test” patients, with stage-4 metastasized cancer, is on the “survival road.” While ‘science’ may argue that a single case “statistically” insignificant, who can’t appreciate the success of that “single case;” in terms of “… one giant leap for mankind.”?

For one person’s opinion, it’s appropriate to publish a “science reality” book to spur private donations for this single project. If ever there is a viable basis for “hope;” this project sounds like the proverbial light at the end of the survival tunnel.

As many “American” disasters have demonstrated, “hope” (charity) can be contagious, nigh unto hysterical. Assuming valid results, discoveries such as this could easily trigger a far greater cash-flow, based upon the notion of personal (psychological) self-serving “investments.”

In addition, judging by the various U.S. “lotteries” (and their statistical ‘probabilities’) the pertinent research and development funds should be relatively easy to trigger – just from “personal” donations.

Here’s hoping …. .

Oct 07, 2013 1:41pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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