Americans James Rothman and Randy Schekman, and German-born researcher Thomas Suedhof won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine yesterday for discoveries on how hormones, enzymes and other key substances are transported within cells.
This traffic control system keeps activities inside cells from descending into chaos and has helped researchers gain a better understanding of a range of diseases, the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine said.
The discoveries have helped doctors diagnose a severe form of epilepsy and immune deficiency diseases in children, committee secretary Goran Hansson said.
In the future, scientists hope the research could lead to medicines against more common types of epilepsy, diabetes and other metabolism deficiencies, he added.
Rothman, 62, is a professor at Yale University, while Schekman, 64, is at the University of California, Berkeley and Suedhof, 57, joined Stanford University in 2008.
Schekman said he was woken at 1am at his California home by Hansson’s call and was jetlagged from a trip to Germany.
“I wasn’t thinking too straight. I didn’t have anything elegant to say,” he told reporters. “All I could say was: ‘Oh my God,’ and that was that.”
The committee in charge of the prize said the three researchers’ work on “vesicle traffic” — the transport system of our cells — helped scientists understand how “cargo is delivered to the right place at the right time” inside cells. Vesicles are tiny bubbles that act as cargo carriers.
“Imagine hundreds of thousands of people who are traveling around hundreds of miles of streets; how are they going to find the right way? Where will the bus stop and open its doors so that people can get out?” Hansson said. “There are similar problems in the cell, to find the right way between the different organelles and out to the surface of the cell.”
In the 1970s, Schekman discovered a set of genes that were required for vesicle transport, while Rothman revealed in the 1980s and 1990s how proteins dock with their target membranes like two sides of a zipper and Suedhof found out how vesicles release their cargo with precision in the 1990s.
Asked if the Nobel might change his work or funding, Rothman said: “I honestly don’t know. It’s a new experience.”