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3 U.S.-based scientists win Nobel in physiology or medicine

Randy W. Schekman of UC Berkeley, Thomas C. Suedhof of Stanford and James E. Rothman of Yale share a Nobel for their cell work.

October 07, 2013|By Monte Morin
  • Randy W. Schekman of UC Berkeley and his wife, Nancy, celebrate his Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He and co-winners Thomas C. Suedhof of Stanford University and James E. Rothman of Yale University were honored for their research on how cells work.
Randy W. Schekman of UC Berkeley and his wife, Nancy, celebrate his Nobel… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

Three scientists who study the inner workings of cells have won the 2013 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work in unraveling the mystery of how proteins, hormones and other molecules are moved around inside cells and exported to other parts of the body.

The Nobel committee lauded Randy W. Schekman of UC Berkeley, Thomas C. Suedhof of Stanford University and James E. Rothman of Yale University for making known "the exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo. Disturbances in this system have deleterious effects and contribute to conditions such as neurological diseases, diabetes and immunological disorders."

The announcement was made Monday in Stockholm.

"It's a fundamental discovery of cell physiology, and it was not entirely easy for these investigators when they started," Juleen Zierath, chairwoman of the committee that awarded the prize, said in an interview posted on the Nobel website.

For decades, the three molecular and cellular biologists have studied the cell's intricate internal transport system in which bubble-like vesicles shuttle key molecules — including neurotransmitters and enzymes — to different parts of the cell and through the cell's membrane.

"Think of a cell as sort of a factory, and it needs to produce proteins," said Zierath, a professor in clinical integrative physiology at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Cells "need to shuttle these proteins and cargo from one workstation to the next, so each protein can get a little bit better refined along the way."

The researchers had been considered among the top contenders for the award, which is worth about $1.2 million. Schekman and Rothman were joint winners of the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 2002, and Suedhof was recognized with the award last month.

At a news conference in Berkeley, Schekman said he was aware of the speculation but didn't think he would win.

But hours after returning from an award ceremony in Germany, the 64-year-old was awakened at 1:30 a.m. by a ringing phone and his wife, Nancy, shouting, "This is it! This is it!"

"My heart was pounding and I was trembling," Schekman said. "But then I heard a comforting voice with a thick Swedish accent congratulating me."

The voice belonged to the Nobel committee chairman, Schekman said, and "he assured me it wasn't a crank call."

"All I could say was, 'Oh, my God. Oh, my God,'" Schekman said. "I was speechless. I couldn't say anything more."

Schekman's research began in the 1970s and focused on the use of yeast cells. In the 1980s and 1990s, his findings enabled the biotechnology industry to use yeast cells to create pharmaceutical products such as insulin. One-third of the world's supply of insulin is created and secreted by yeast.

Suedhof, 57, a native of Germany, studies how signals are transmitted from one nerve cell to another within the brain. He won the Kavli Prize in neuroscience in 2010.

The bulk of Suedhof's award-winning research was conducted at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. 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.

Suedhof was in the remote town of Baeza, Spain, for a conference when he learned of the honor, Stanford officials said.

"I'm absolutely surprised," Suedhof said in a statement released by the university. "Every scientist dreams of this. I didn't realize there was chance I would be awarded the prize. I am stunned and really happy to share the prize with James Rothman and Randy Schekman."

Initially, the Nobel committee called Suedhof's home in Menlo Park, near Stanford.

"The phone rang three times before I decided to go downstairs and pick it up," said Suedhof's wife, Lu Chen, an associate professor of neurosurgery at Stanford. "I thought it was one of my Chinese relatives who couldn't figure out the time zone."

At a news conference at Yale on Monday, Rothman, 62, said he was overwhelmed by the honor.

"It's still a little hard to believe this is all happening, I have to admit," he said.

Rothman did, however, note a connection between his work and the elation he was feeling after learning of the award — an elation caused by the secretion of endorphins.

"Everyone has commented on how my mood has been very good today, and my wife, Joy Hirsch, has commented that I haven't complained today and it's already 12:30," he said. "I think that's because the secretory pathway that my colleagues Randy Schekman and Thomas Suedhof and I are credited with understanding in a new way has been stimulated, and so my endorphins are stimulated."

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