Scientists Awarded Nobel Prize For Studies on Cell Transport Systems

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Handout / Reuters

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine winners. From left: Randy Schekman, Thomas Suedhof and James Rothman.

Three American cell biologists are recognized for discoveries that explain how diseases such as diabetes, immune disorders, and Alzheimer’s work.

“Oh my God, oh my God.” That’s how a world renowned scientist reacts to the news that he has won his field’s top honor, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

It was just after one o’clock in the morning on Monday, but that didn’t stop Randy Schekman, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, from dancing around with his wife after receiving the phone call from Goran Hansson of the Nobel committee in Stockholm.

Schekman received the prize with two fellow Americans, James Rothman, professor of cell biology at Yale University, and Dr. Thomas Sudhof, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University. Sudhof was driving in Spain when he received the call and had to be convinced that he wasn’t the being pranked by his friends.

“I was actually thinking that my friend was calling me, because I’m a little lost,” he told the interviewer calling from the Nobel Foundation.

The scientists received the Prize for their work explaining how cells transport compounds around the body, and for how agents are actually deposited from one cell to another.

The human body is a thriving biological metropolis of cells, growth factors, hormones, enzymes, nutrients, waste products and more. And just like any hub, its health depends on each one of these various residents zipping along its designated highway and reaching its destination at the right time, and in the right amount.

Rothman, Schekman and Sudhof each contributed to mapping out the key molecular steps that some of these critical components take. Schekman identified the genes that direct the vesicles containing molecular compounds to find their targets; Rothman exposed the proteins involved in fusing vesicles to these targets and Sudhof discovered the signals that allowed the vesicles to deliver their cargo.

By studying yeast with defective transport systems. Schekman first honed in on the genes that regulate the movement of the molecular bubbles that are the buses and subway cars of the body’s transport system. His work revealed three classes of genes that oversee vesicle transport, acting as the molecular switchboard for these bubbles.

Rothman focused on what occurred once these vesicles reached their destination. How did the various bubbles, each containing different brain chemicals or enzymes or proteins, know when they had reached their destination? He identified specific combinations of proteins on the vesicles and their target cells that matched up like a lock and key to ensure that the right compounds went to the right place.

Sudhof concentrated his career on the next step – understanding how the vesicles released their contents. By studying how nerve cells communicate in the brain, Sudhof analyzed the changes in calcium ions to explain how a vesicle binding to a cell could trigger an influx of calcium ions that would direct the cells to open their membranes and accept the vesicle’s contents.

These discoveries lay the groundwork for understanding how the body’s critical agents, from enzymes to hormones, reach the right cells, and what happens in disease states when they don’t. When cells aren’t receiving the proper amount of insulin, for example, they don’t receive the appropriate signals to break down glucose into the energy that the cells need, and the build up of sugar in the blood can lead to the eye, kidney and other metabolic disorders known as diabetes. Understanding where this cell transport goes awry may also lead to better treatments for neurological diseases and immune conditions such as autoimmune disorders as well.