Nobel Prize Awarded In Medicine

Americans James Rothman and Randy Schekman and German-born researcher Thomas Suedhof have won the 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine. The Nobel committee cited their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. This year's Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine will go to three scientists who have figured out how cells package up material - like hormones - and how they deliver those materials to other cells. This is one of the most basic functions for living cells and diseases can result when the machinery goes awry, so it's important to understand.

All three of the winners work at universities here in the United States, and joining us to tell us more about this is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. He's in our studios. Richard, good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. We're going to figure out complicated science together here. So who won?

HARRIS: OK. First of all, who won is a good question. James Rothman is at Yale University; he's 62 years old. Randy Schekman is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scholar based on the U.C.-Berkeley campus; he's 64. And Thomas Sudhof is also a Howard Huges Medical Institute Scholar; his lab is at Stanford. And for people who track these prizes by nationality, he was born in Germany.

INSKEEP: OK. So those are the three winners. What were they studying again?

HARRIS: Well, they were studying - really, this basic mechanism of the cells. A cell is not just a simple sack of fluid; it's got to be organized inside. So cells build little packages to store up and move substances around. You could think of them like little balloons, and they're called vesicles.

So, say a job of a cell is to make insulin.Well, it will package that insulin in a vesicle and then when the time is right, it will excrete that insulin out of the cell and into the greater surroundings, to help you digest your food.

INSKEEP: Like they're FedEx or something.

HARRIS: Yeah, right. It's sort of - yeah, package and delivery. Exactly.

INSKEEP: OK.

HARRIS: Now, Randy Scheckman started studying all this in the 1970s by looking at yeast where this packaging system wasn't working properly. These vesicles would all pile up, and they wouldn't actually leave the cells and do what they were supposed to do. So Sheckman used this as a key that, hey, if I can figure out what's wrong, I can figure out the mechanisms that make this work right.And he actually pinpointed many of the genes that are actually responsible for the cell transport system in yeast.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's one of the three guys. He found this one part of the mechanism. What about the other two?

HARRIS: OK. James Rothman dug in to look at the mechanics of these vesicles, the physical mechanisms. And in particular, if a vesicle is going to discharge its hormones - say it's got a, you know, a bit of hormone it wants to put outside the cell - it will actually fuse to the cell membrane. And Rothman figured out exactly the mechanism that the vesicle uses to sort of grab on and open up, essentially. Think of it like a blister popping kind of thing.

INSKEEP: Eww.

HARRIS: And - yeah. And so - but he figured out the mechanism that allows cells to do this little molecular dance. And finally, let's turn and think for a moment about the brain - because brain cells also communicate with one another using chemicals. And one cell excretes a chemical called a neurotransmitter, and that gets picked up by other cells - and so on.

And so, again, you won't be surprised to hear that vesicles are involved in this process. And if cells aren't excreting those neurotransmitters, the nerves aren't talking to each other. So it's really, the most basic thing about brain communication, so - and this is where Thomas Sudhof's work comes in.

INSKEEP: OK. So, it's interesting - you used the word communication. This is how cells communicate with each other; this is how cells transmit substances to one another. This is the phone line. This is the FedEx system. So what are the practical implications of understanding this better?

HARRIS: Well, this is - as you said, this is - the prize is Physiology or Medicine, and I'd say this leans more towards the physiology side than medicine. This is very, very basic stuff that you need to understand if you're going to cure diseases like diabetes, or some neurological diseases or immune system dysfunctions. You have to understand how all of this works in order to fix it. So this is laying incredibly important groundwork for medicine.

INSKEEP: OK, $1.2 million - is that right?

HARRIS: That's right. Eight million Swedish kronor.

INSKEEP: OK. Divided three ways, so $400,000 apiece, something...

HARRIS: Something like that.

INSKEEP: OK. Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: He has news this morning of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

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