The winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine were announced this morning.
Three U.S. scientists — Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley, James Rothman of Yale, and German-born Thomas Südhof of Stanford University — will share the award for their work on the transportation of materials within cells. Think of it as the FedEx of the body.
“I got that phone call, but being in California, it happened at 1:30 in the morning here,” Randy Schekman told Here & Now.
Schekman explains that all cells manufacture protein molecules — the fundamental components that cells use to nourish themselves and grow and divide.
“But [cells] also devote some fraction of their energy to producing molecules for shipment outside of the cell,” Schekman said. “The broad outline of how this happens had been established by cell biologists in the ’70s, but how the cell organizes the nuts and bolts of this, mechanistically, was not understood.”
The application of Schekman’s work on cellular transportation has resulted in the manufacture of useful proteins, such as insulin, and the protein used in the hepatitis vaccine.
“At this stage, particularly, with this unbelievable federal paralysis that’s really dismantling this enormous biomedical enterprise, the word needs to get out again that basic science is crucially important,” Schekman said. “Without the basic investment, progress on these things will come to a screeching halt.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
The winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine were announced this morning. Three scientists, Randy Schekman of the University of California Berkeley, James Rothman of Yale and German-born Thomas Sudhof of Stanford University will share the award for their work on the transportation of materials within cells, the vesicle traffic.
It's an intricate delivery system, think of it as the FedEx of the body, and Professor Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley, joins us from his home. Professor, congratulations.
RANDY SCHEKMAN: Thank you.
YOUNG: Well, and how did you find out? Did you get that phone call?
SCHEKMAN: I got that phone call, but being in California it happened at 1:30 in the morning here, so I had just returned from Germany last night. So I got home, and fortunately I went to bed at 9 o'clock, so I actually had four hours of sleep. So...
YOUNG: I'm sure you've been up since then.
SCHEKMAN: Yes, I have.
YOUNG: Well, just tell us a little bit about this work because we understand in the chain of science that was here, you were part of the pioneering work in the 1970s on yeast cells, and it showed that there were genes that played a role in this transport system within cells of delivering chemicals that were needed at certain times. Just if you could briefly tell us what you found.
SCHEKMAN: Sure. So all cells manufacture protein molecules that are the major catalysts of everything that a cell needs to do to nourish itself and grow and divide. But they also devote some fraction of their energy to producing molecules, proteins for shipment outside of the cell. In humans, these are proteins such as hormones, insulin, blot clotting factors, lipoproteins. About 10 percent of the proteins that the cell manufactures are designed for export.
And the broad outline of how this happens had been established by cell biologists as early as the 1970s, but how the cell organizes the nuts and bolts of this mechanistically was not understood. And so what I decided to when I started at U.C. Berkeley was to take a step back and instead of using the traditional cells that biologists had studied in for instance the pancreas, I decided to use yeast cells because it was clear to me and to others that yeast cells use processes that animal cells use to do the same things.
In recent years we've now started working on mammalian cells because we've learned of human diseases with genetic mutations in the very genes that we discovered in yeast. And because of what we did in yeast, we can now harness that knowledge and go right into human cells and delve into the nuts and bolts of this process.
YOUNG: And what does that mean? In other words, if a cell is not delivering something that might ward off cancer, you want to find out what?
SCHEKMAN: Well, here, I'll give you a very specific example from my work in recent years. One of the genes that we discovered in yeast has a counterpart in mammals, and an investigator at Johns Hopkins discovered that a mutation in that gene in the mouse produces a neural tube defect that's similar to the disease spina bifida.
So armed with that knowledge from him, we were able to go in and understand very precisely how the cells that surround what is a structure called the neural tube, which is the first structure that gives rise to the human brain, exactly which molecules were arrested in their transportation within a cell. And that knowledge then can probably give further insights into what happens in birth defects.
YOUNG: In other words, you could use this delivery system, this, you know, staying with the FedEx system, to try to get things to cells to repair them.
SCHEKMAN: Yes, that's a possibility.
YOUNG: Yeah. So here you and your fellow scientists share a $1.2 million prize for your work. I can't imagine that's not going to come in handy. But just the acknowledgement, how much is that worth?
SCHEKMAN: Well, the endorsement I would say is - of the work is the most important. The money is kind of secondary. But even more than any personal recognition is the recognition that basic science continues to provide tremendous insights that can be harnessed for the public good. And at this stage particularly, right now, with this unbelievable federal paralysis that's really dismantling this enormous biomedical enterprise that we have in this country, the word needs to get out again that basic science is crucially important, not merely for our understanding of how life works but also for industrial applications. And Congress needs to understand that they're imperiling the tremendous advantage that we've provided to industry in this country by developing this basic knowledge.
YOUNG: With the help of federal government funding.
YOUNG: Randy Schekman, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, sharing the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with James Rothman and Thomas Sudhof for their work in discovering the FedEx system within cells, if I could put it that way. Professor Schekman, thanks so much.
SCHEKMAN: Thank you.
YOUNG: Well, I didn't coming back full-circle to the government shutdown, which we'll continue to follow. Back in a minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Jeremy Hobson joins Robin Young as co-host of Here & Now in its new 2-hour format, from WBUR and NPR.
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