Research that offers insights into diseases such as Alzheimer's, autism and diabetes has won the Nobel Prize for medicine for three US-based medical scientists who unravelled the way that cells transport materials, such as hormones and nerve transmitters.
James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Südhof were awarded the prize, announced in Stockholm on October 7th.
They made discoveries about a fundamental process in cell biology known as vesicle transport, revealing how cargo, such as hormones, insulin and neurotransmitters, are delivered with timing and precision between and within cells via tiny membrane bubbles.
Randy Schekman, professor in the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered a set of genes required for vesicle traffic in cells.
James Rothman unravelled protein machinery that allows vesicles to fuse with their targets and so permit the transfer of cellular cargo. He is professor and chairman in the department of cell biology at Yale University in New Haven, CT.
Thomas Südhof revealed how signals instruct vesicles to release their cargo with precision. He is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor of molecular and cellular physiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Brain cell communication discoveries
The pioneering research for which Dr. Südhof was recognized involved discoveries about synaptic transmission, the process by which brain cells and other nerves communicate with each other.
This work was performed at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX, where his studies on nerve-cell interaction and neurotransmitter release have improved understanding of brain function in both normal states and in pathological conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease.
Neurotransmitters are released from vesicles that fuse with the outer membrane of nerve cells by using the machinery discovered by the other two Nobel laureates, and Dr. Südhof discovered why these vesicles are allowed to release their contents only at precise times under the tight command of nerve cell signals, according to the Nobel announcement.
Gene discoveries involved in cell transport
Prof. Schekman studied the genetic basis of how the cell organizes its transport system.
Using yeast as a model system in the 1970s, he identified defective cell transport machinery that resulted in congestion resembling public transport problems. Prof. Schekman identified the mutated genes behind this phenomenon.
He talks about how he heard he was a winner of the Nobel prize for medicine in the video below, and the reaction he got in cell phone texts from his family and a former biology teacher. He is married to Nancy Walls and has two adult children, according to a UC Berkeley statement.
He says his son texted "Yeah, crazy! Front page of the New York Times" while his daughter texted "Holy bleep!" and "Recognize!!!!!!"
Precise cargo delivery
The third prize-winning piece of the cell transport puzzle was solved by Prof. Rothman, who, according to the Nobel announcement, studied vesicle transport in mammalian cells in the 1980s and 1990s, discovering a protein complex that enables vesicles to "dock and fuse" with their target membranes.
The fact that the proteins bind only in specific combinations ensures that cargo is delivered to a precise location.
The genes responsible for these mammalian proteins corresponded with those discovered in Prof. Schekman's yeast cells, revealing an "ancient evolutionary origin" for the cell's critical transport machinery.
The cellular machinery that the three Nobel laureates have elucidated is so sensitive that small errors can cause serious illness or death, outlining the importance of their work for advances in medicine.
Written by Markus MacGill