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Cellular breakthrough earns trio Nobel for medicine

Update: October, 08/2013 - 11:59

STOCKHOLM – A trio of American scientists, one of them German-born, have won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for pioneering work on the body's cell transport system, unlocking insights into diabetes, immune disorders and other diseases.

James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Suedhof on Monday shared the prize for discovering how molecules vital to cellular functioning are shunted around in an internal freight system, tucked inside sacs called vesicles.

They also helped resolve how the vesicles arrive on time and in the right place – a major riddle, given that this takes place in a microscopic environment humming with movement.

If the package fails to show up at the right time, or goes to the wrong location, this can cause cellular malfunction.

"Through their discoveries, Rothman, Schekman and Suedhof have revealed the exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo," the Nobel panel said.

"Without this wonderfully precise organisation, the cell would lapse into chaos."

Suedhof, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University in California, was driving a car "in the middle of Spain" when reached by the Nobel Committee several hours after the announcement.

"Are you serious? Oh, my God," he said when given the news, according to a recording carried on the official Nobel website.

Suedhof, who was born in 1955 in Germany but is now a US citizen, welcomed sharing the prize with two others, saying "one tends to overestimate oneself, but I think it's more than fair."

When asked about his capacity for work, he answered: "My wife thinks I am crazy. I don't know. I am incredibly driven."

Schekman, 64 and a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley said: "My reaction when I heard about it was one of disbelief and joy."

Rothman, a 62-year-old professor and chairman of the department of cell biology at Yale University, said: "Almost anyone who receives the Nobel prize has some indirect knowledge of one sort or another that they might be a candidate, so at some level it's not a complete surprise.

"But that it actually happens is an out-of-body experience," he added.

As the trio got over their amazement, they turned to warning that scientific progress in the United States is in peril due to unprecedented funding cuts and ideological challenges.

"I see today ... the discouragement that young scientists in this country feel and it is something we need to pay attention to if we want to maintain this country as the great competitive world leader that it has been," said Rothman, adding that it is now "much, much more difficult" for a young scientist to obtain funding.

Suedhof meanwhile pointed to "a significant increasingly vocal percentage of the population that thinks we shouldn't go after truth and truth is not important" which "worries the hell out of me."

"You can't at the same time be for science and against it. "I would consider it as progress if everybody, no matter what their ideology or religion is, could agree on the principle that truth is not an ideological issue," he said.

A long list of achievements

The trio worked independently on various aspects of the vesicle system, in research spanning three-and-a-half decades.

Schekman began his investigations in the late 1970s, when he became interested in cellular genetics, using yeast as a model for study.

Yeast cells with defective transport machinery gave rise to a system that resembled a poorly planned public transport system, he discovered.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Rothman began studying in greater detail how vesicles are transported in mammalian cells.

"He discovered that a protein complex enables vesicles to dock and fuse with their target membranes," the jury said.

The binding takes place thanks to proteins that fit with each other like the two sides of a zipper.

"The fact that they bind only in specific combinations ensures that cargo is delivered to a precise location," the citation read.

Suedhof's curiosity was initially piqued by how nerve cells are able to communicate with one another in the brain.

In the 1990s, he discovered how the vesicles' contents are released on command – a vital part of the signalling system within the cell.

The Nobel adds to the trio's long list of achievements.

In 2002, Rothman and Schekman shared the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, one of the top US science honours. And in 2010, Schekman and Suedhof shared the Kavli Prize for neuroscience.

The three will share equally the prize sum of eight million Swedish kronor ($1.25 million, 925,000 euros), reduced because of the economic crisis last year from the 10 million kronor awarded since 2001.

In line with tradition, the ceremony will take place in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

Last year, the honour went to Shinya Yamanaka of Japan and John Gurdon of Britain for their work on cell programming, a frontier that has raised dreams of replacement tissue for people crippled by disease. AFP


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