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Professors at Berkeley and Stanford share Nobel Prize for medicine

October 07, 2013|By Monte Morin
  • UC Berkeley professor Randy Schekman kisses his wife, Nancy Walls, during a news conference Monday announcing his place among this years recipients of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
UC Berkeley professor Randy Schekman kisses his wife, Nancy Walls, during… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

Professors of molecular and cellular biology at UC Berkeley and Stanford University are sharing the 2013 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work in unraveling the mystery of a key cellular process.

Randy W. Schekman of Berkeley and Thomas C. Sudhof of Stanford have been awarded the prize along with Yale University professor James E. Rothman, chairman of the cellular biology department. The announcement was made on Monday.

The Nobel Committee lauded the researchers 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."

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

The researchers had been cited as among the top contenders for the award, which is worth roughly $1.2 million.

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

But then, 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's 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 chairman of the Nobel Committee, Sheckman said, and "he assued 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. Currently, one-third of the world's supply of insulin is created and secreted by yeast.

Sudhof, 57, a native of Germany, studies how signals are transmitted from one nerve cell to another within the brain. Last month, he was recognized with the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.

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.

Sudhof was in the remote town of Baeza, Spain, where he was attending a conference, when he learned of the honor, according to the a Stanford press release.

"I'm absolutely surprised," Sudhof said. "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 Sudhof's home in Menlo Park.

"The phone rang three times before I decided to go downstairs and pick it up," said Sudhof'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 press conference at Yale on Monday, Rothman said he was overwhelmed.

"It's still a little hard to believe this is all happening, I have to admit," said Rothman, 62.

The researcher 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 its already 12:30. I think that's because the secretory pathway that my colleagues Randy Schekman and Thomas Sudhof and I are credited with understanding in a new way has been stimulated and so my endorphins are stimulated."

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