Click photo to enlarge
Courtesy Stanford University -- Pictured is professor Thomas Sudhof of Stanford University. He was among three researchers awarded the Nobel prize in medicine Monday morning. Sudhof will share the prize with professors Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley and James Rothman of Yale University. The men were recognized "for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells, " according to the Nobel announcement.

Longtime rivals Stanford and UC Berkeley are sharing the glory of the world's grandest prize, earned for their discoveries about life's smallest package.

For solving the mystery of the cell's inner transit system, scientists Thomas Südhof of Stanford and Randy Schekman of UC Berkeley were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday, along with James Rothman from Yale University.

The trio, each reaching similar insights from different angles, revealed how a tiny cell organizes and ships the hormones, antibodies and enzymes that make life possible.

This marvelous cellular mechanism -- delivering cargo to the right place at the right time -- is so critical that errors in the machinery lead to neurological diseases, diabetes, immunological disorders and ultimately death.

The scientists' insights, lauded by the 50-member Nobel Assembly on Monday morning, have led directly to treatments and vaccines, as well as improved understanding of the biological basis of diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. They will share the $1.25 million prize.

In Monday news conferences, Südhof of Menlo Park and Schekman of El Cerrito rejoiced at the news, but also fretted over the current state of science research and education in America.

Südhof learned he'd won a Nobel Prize in a spotty cellphone call while driving from Madrid to a small town in southern Spain.


Advertisement

"I was expecting a call from a colleague about the conference I'm here to attend, so I pulled off in a parking lot," Südhof, 57, a molecular and cellular physiology professor, told the Stanford School of Medicine. "I hadn't slept at all the previous night, and I certainly wasn't expecting a call from the Nobel committee."

Schekman had just returned from Germany on Sunday night, and woke at 1:30 a.m. Monday to his wife Nancy yelling, "This is it! This is it!" when she heard the phone ring.

"I jumped up, my heart was pounding, I was trembling when I picked it up," he said. "A comforting voice with a thick Swedish accent assured it was not a prank. ... My first reaction was, 'Oh, my God! Oh, my God.' Then I went speechless and couldn't say any more."

His first phone call was to his 86-year-old father who "has been waiting for this moment," Schekman said.

Instructing his lab manager to buy two bottles of Champagne, Schekman, 64, celebrated Monday afternoon with his staff. The professor of molecular and cell biology will return to the undergraduate classroom Tuesday, to lead a debate among freshmen on the ethics of gene patenting.

Monday's news adds to the already lengthy list of Nobel laureates at both prestigious Bay Area campuses. Seven living Nobelists work at Berkeley, and another 14 are deceased. Stanford lists 19 current Nobel laureates, but when visiting professors are included, the tally jumps to 28.

All three winners have a Stanford connection. Schekman earned his doctoral degree there. Rothman, a 62-year-old Yale professor of biomedical sciences, started his early research in a Stanford lab. Südhof is a current member of the faculty.

Each scientist contributed a key -- and complementary -- part to the discoveries about inner workings of the supple, restless dynamo that is a living cell:

  • Schekman decoded a set of genes that were required for the sorting, packaging and delivery of proteins in tiny bubbles of fluid called vesicles, which ferry molecules around the cell interior.

  • Rothman unraveled the protein machinery that allows these vesicles to fuse with their targets to transfer the proteins.

  • Südhof revealed how cellular signals instruct vesicles to release their cargo with precision.

    "They're three very different people. Each is very intelligent, very purposeful and driven," Dartmouth University's Bill Wickner told the journal New Scientist.

    Südhof has spent the past 30 years unlocking the secrets of the synapse, the junction where nerve cells communicate with one another in the brain.

    The firing patterns of our synapses underwrite our consciousness, emotions and behavior. Südhof believes that the death of these synapses is thought to contribute to diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. His work could lead to a treatment that protects these vital pathways.

    Rothman's and Schekman's work mapped how a cell shuttles proteins in and out through its membrane. This helped build the conceptual foundation for a vaccine for hepatitis B and the synthetic production of human insulin for diabetes.

    "We started with no practical application in mind," Schekman said during a news conference at UC Berkeley. ''We were interested in basic cellular systems."

    While celebrating the honor, both Bay Area winners worried over America's inadequate spending on higher education and research.

    "I came from a middle class family" of five children, said Schekman, who paid his own way through UCLA, $40 a term. "Going to a private institute never even occurred to me. ... I will continue to spread the word about how important public education is."

    Investments in research pay off, Südhof said. "The amount of money spent on research is minuscule compared to what is spent on medical treatments."

    The Nobel prizes, which award achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature, were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. An economics prize was created almost seven decades later in memory of Nobel by the Swedish central bank.

    The Nobel Prize in Physics will be announced Tuesday.

    Staff writer Doug Oakley contributed to this report. Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.

    Randy Schekman

    Discovery: Decoded a set of genes that were required for the sorting, packaging and delivery of proteins in tiny bubbles of fluid called vesicles, ferrying them to the cell surface.
    Professional: Joined UC Berkeley faculty in 1976, where he is professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. Editor of the new online publication, eLife.
    Background: Lives in El Cerrito with his wife, Nancy Walls. Born 1948 in St. Paul, Minn.; studied at UC Los Angeles; obtained Ph.D. at Stanford in 1974 under supervision of 1959 Nobel Prize winner Arthur Kornberg.
    Quote: "I treasure teaching undergraduates, and it helps me explain myself to others who don't understand my work.''


    Thomas Südhof

    Discovery: Revealed how cellular signals instruct vesicles to release their cargo with precision.
    Professional: Professor of molecular and cellular physiology named to Stanford faculty in 2008.
    Background: Lives in Menlo Park with his wife, Stanford associate professor Lu Chen. Born in 1955 in Göttingen, Germany, and studied at the Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen, where he received his medical degree in 1982 and a doctorate in neurochemistry the same year. In 1983, he moved to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
    Quote: "I am convinced this work will eventually lead to therapies ... but our understanding is still only very partial. Maybe we should be a little more humble toward that enormous, wonderful organ, the brain."


    James Rothman

    Discovery: Unraveled the protein machinery that allows vesicles to fuse with their targets to permit transfer of proteins.
    Professional: Professor and chairman of Yale's Department of Cell Biology; started his research at Stanford.
    Background: Born 1950 in Haverhill, Mass., received his Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1976, did a postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1978, he moved to Stanford, where he started exploring the vesicles of the cell.
    Quote: "It is much, much more difficult -- quantitatively more difficult -- for young scientists to get started today."