Nobel Prize awarded to discoveries of machinery regulating cell transport systems

Published 2013-10-08 00:00. Updated 2013-11-26 10:29

[NEWS 2013-10-08] The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is to be awarded jointly to James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Südhof for their discoveries concerning the cellular transport and delivery of molecules.

The recipients of this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, all of whom work in the USA, have shown how cells can transport and deliver molecules to the right place at the right time via tiny bubbles known as vesicles.

Jan AnderssonPhoto: Ulf Sirnorn

"I believe that the recognition we're giving to this system will take the world by surprise," says Jan Andersson, professor of infectious diseases at KI's Department of Medicine, director of research for the Stockholm County Council, and one of the 50 members of the Nobel Assembly, which selected this year's laureates.

"Many people have thought that other scientific discoveries deserved to be rewarded and one might wonder just how interesting transport systems actually are. But think of the chaos caused when the public transport system is brought to a standstill in the morning."

Randy Schekman is to receive the prize for his discoveries of a group of genes that regulate vesicular transport in cells; James Rothman for his discoveries of proteins that govern how the vesicles deliver their payloads by fusing with the recipient membrane; and Thomas Südhof for his discoveries on how the release of the payload is controlled so that it occurs at the right time.

"The first discovery was made in 1979, and the latest was announced in 2001," says Professor Andersson. "This transport system is incredibly important not only to the cell but also to the entire organism, as it mediates several processes, such as inter-neuronal communication and the release of insulin into the blood."

Disruption to this vesicular transport system can cause conditions such as diabetes or diseases of the immune and nervous systems; examples of the latter include tetanus and botulism, both of which are caused by bacterial toxins that disable the transportation of vesicles in nerve cells.

"One of the most common life-threatening genetic diseases in childhood, familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FHL), is also caused by defects in the transport system, and is currently treated with bone-marrow transplantation," continues Professor Andersson.

Professor Andersson expects that this new knowledge of the cellular transportation and delivery of molecules will provide fresh insights into disease mechanisms, and lead to the development of completely novel drug types.

"Next in line for scientific study in the field are individual components of the machinery in different cell types and organs," he says.

Professor Andersson estimates that between 500 and 800 researchers at KI are involved in projects related in one way or another to the transport system that has now been recognised with the awarding of this year's Nobel Prize.