Scientists win Nobel for mapping body's 'cell traffic' system

Mon Oct 7, 2013 8:11pm EDT
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By Niklas Pollard and Julie Steenhuysen

STOCKHOLM/CHICAGO (Reuters) - Three scientists won the Nobel medicine prize on Monday for plotting how cells transfer vital materials such as hormones and brain chemicals to other cells, giving insight into diseases such as Alzheimer's, autism and diabetes.

Americans James Rothman, 62, Randy Schekman, 64, and German-born Thomas Suedhof, 57, separately mapped out one of the body's critical networks in which tiny bubbles known as vesicles enable cells to secrete chemicals such as insulin into the surrounding environment.

This cellular machinery, which has evolved over a billion years, is so sensitive that slight malfunctions in the mechanism can cause serious illness or death.

"Through their discoveries, Rothman, Schekman and Suedhof have revealed the exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo," the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said in a statement when awarding the prize of 8 million crowns ($1.2 million).

Their research on how cells transport material around sheds light on how insulin, which controls blood sugar levels, is made and released into the blood at the right place at the right time. Diabetes and some brain disorders have been attributed at least in part to defects in the vesicle transport systems.

The scientists' work explains an "absolutely essential" component of cell biology that helps scientists understand how the brain or hormone secretion works, said Dr. Jeremy Berg, who for years worked as director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a part of the National Institutes of Health, which underwrote much of the research.

"It's one of the prizes for which there is not a treatment that came out of it directly, but there are probably literally thousands of laboratories around the world whose work would not be taking place the way it is without their work," said Berg, who is director of the Institute for Personalized Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Nobel committee said the work could help in understanding immuno-deficiency and brain disorders such as autism.   Continued...

Yale University Professor James Rothman, 62, the co-awardee of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Medicine, arrives to a standing ovation before attending a press conference at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, October 7, 2013. REUTERS/Adrees Latif