Three American Scientists Win 2013 Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine
October 7, 2013

Three American Scientists Win 2013 Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Three scientists at American universities were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work describing the cellular machinery behind the transport and secretion of proteins in the body’s cells.

Based on their experiments with yeast, the scientists – Randy W. Schekman from the University of California at Berkeley, Thomas C. Südhof from Stanford University and James E. Rothman from Yale University -- were able to reveal new details about a fundamental process in cell physiology.

In a statement, the 50-member Nobel Assembly praised the scientists for describing “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.”

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my god!’” said Schekman, who was awakened with the good news at 1:30 a.m. PST. “That was also my second reaction.”

Schekman and Rothman worked separately to describe the cellular system that ferries hormones and enzymes out and grows the cell membrane surface so the cell can divide and multiply. The system utilizes tiny bubbles on the cell membrane to shuttle molecules about the cell interior and is so important that mistakes in the system inevitably lead to death.

“Ten percent of the proteins that cells make are secreted, including growth factors and hormones, neurotransmitters by nerve cells and insulin from pancreas cells,” Schekman said.

In what seemed like a questionable decision at the time, Schekman began investigating this system in yeast starting in 1976. During the following years, he discovered more and more details on how yeast cells arrange, wrap up and send proteins using membrane bubbles, a highly important process in yeast communication and in mating. The process also delivers receptors to the surface of the yeast cell, its primary way of controlling the intake of nutrients.

During the 1980s and 90s, the scientists’ work allowed for the biotechnology industry to utilize the cellular system in yeast to generate and release pharmaceutical products and enzymes. Today, individuals with diabetes use insulin produced by yeast and most of the hepatitis B vaccines in use are secreted by yeast. Both systems are used by Novartis International AG, the company at which Schekman consulted for 20 years.

Many diseases, including some types of diabetes and a type of hemophilia, entail a snag in this system. Schekman is currently investigating a potential connection to Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our findings have aided people in understanding these diseases,” said Schekman.

In 2002, Rothman and Schekman shared an Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, sometimes referred to as ‘America’s Nobel.’ The colleagues also worked “collaboratively and competitively” over the years, employing different methods to reach their findings, Schekman told Bloomberg News.

“When you win the Lasker prize, which I did in 2002, people just keep reminding you about the Nobels,” he said. “As much as you try to put it out of your mind because there are indeed many valuable projects, it’s always a possibility you are being reminded of. I hoped it would come.”