Monday, October 7, 2013

Wow, Three Americans Win Joint Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Congratulations to Drs. James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof!! 

  • The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded for discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.
  • Through their discoveries, Rothman, Schekman and Südhof have revealed the exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo.
  • Disturbances in this transport system have deleterious effects and contribute to conditions such as neurological diseases, diabetes, and immunological disorders.





Each Scientist's contribution in brief:

i)  Schekman discovered a set of genes that were required for vesicle traffic. 

ii) Rothman unraveled protein machinery that allows vesicles to fuse with their targets to permit transfer of cargo. 

iii) Südhof revealed how signals instruct vesicles to release their cargo with precision.



How important their work is could simply be understood by one example. We are well aware about Diabetes as a disease as it affects so many people on the earth, we also are aware that insulin is the key protein that gets defective in Diabetes.  However, most of us do not know how Insulin, which controls blood sugar levels, is made and released into the blood at the right place at the right time, and how it gets outside of the beta cells of the pancreas (in case of healthy people). Modern antidepressants only work because they prevent neurons from re-uptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin. But how was that serotonin released in the first place? Answer to such questions that deal with trafficking of biological molecules is studied in the field of "vascular trafficking" in cell biology.  This field is all about cellular structures called "vesicles". These bubble-like bags of cellular goodies are one common way that the cells gets things from the inside to the outside, sending off their chemical messages from a few micrometers away to a couple of meters. Some brain disorders such as Huntington's 
and Alzheimer's diseases have also been attributed at least in part to defects in the vesicle transport systems.

It is interesting to note that Randy Schekman, who is actually a St. Paul (Minnesota) native, a place currently I live and work, who has been at the University of California at Berkeley for 35 years, did most of his work using simple organism called yeast. It proves again that non-human model systems  have given us crucial insights to how  human bodies function in healthy state and diseases.

It is also interesting fact that 2 of 3 laureates were trained with previous Nobel laureates. Scheckman did his graduate work with legendary molecular biologist Arthur Kornberg (Physiology or Medicine 1959) while Südhof was a postdoctoral fellow with the cholesterol biology pioneers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein (Physiology or Medicine 1985). So like teacher like disciple

Dr. Jeremy Berg, director of the Institute for Personalized Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh who for years also worked as director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a part of the National Institutes of Health, aptly summarized the importance of the field pioneered by these laureates:-
"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," 

I do not need to mention that even my area of interest (cancer biology with emphasis to adhesion signaling and receptor tyrosine kinase signaling) could not have been as exciting and promising if there were no such pioneering work done by these scientists trio. 

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