This morning, James Rothman, Randy Schekman, and Thomas Sudhof got phone calls from Geneva. They learned that their basic research into how cells work gained them the recognition from the Nobel Committee for the
2013 Nobel Prize In Medicine Or Physiology.
Their prize is the example of how basic research into the nature of the world around us is can be incredibly important in treating disease. These tiny actions of a normally functioning cell seem irrelevant to the larger world, but that all changes when things go wrong.
Südhof told the Lancet in 2010 that this basic science, is not a “field, but an approach: ‘solid descriptive science,’ like neuroanatomy or biochemistry, disciplines that cannot claim to immediately understand functions or provide cures, but which form the basis for everything we do.”
Sadly in the budget fights and government show down, federal funding for these basic research projects are being defunded and cut. This has even recently impacted one of today’s winners: Rothman lost his NIH funding for the research he won the award for.He told the AP that he hopes that the Nobel Prize will mean his grants will get funded in the future if he re-applies.
Award winning research
All spent decades unravelling different parts of the cellular transport system. We might sometimes see cells as we did in middle school, as a dish shaped blob with a center nucleus as the command center and multiple other static organs.
But that’s not really the case. Our cells (and plant, yeast and bacteria cells, too) are very busy places that are constantly creating new proteins and organelles and shifting them around the cell as signals are sent to and fro.
When a cell makes a batch of proteins to be released or used and stored in a specific part of the cell, they are transported in cellular bubbles called vesicles to be kept away from the general population.
Once in these bubbles, the other machinery of the cells have to have instructions to know where to put them. That when this “trafficking control center” comes into play. A set of genes and proteins are what direct these vesicles, each of the winners analysed different parts of the process:
Schekman discovered a set of genes that were required for vesicle traffic. Rothman unravelled protein machinery that allows vesicles to fuse with their targets to permit transfer of cargo. And Südhof revealed how signals instruct vesicles to release their cargo with precision.
Important in every cell
These pathways are important for how every cell works, Here are some examples:
- Pancreatic cells use these pathways to secrete insulin into the bloodstream, so problems in the transport system can lead to diseases like diabetes, if there is too much insulin or too little insulin being secreted.
- Brain cells use proteins held in secretory vesicles to communicate with each other, including the all-important dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters. (Südhof studies specifically this.)
- Your immune cells use vesicles to store and transport antibodies — your body’s weapon again infection and disease.
Their award is a great reason to talk about the importance of basic research — even into these basic pathways in yeast, which was the study organism that Schekman used — their studies aren’t saving lives immediately, but giving us a better understanding of how the world around us works, and how it doesn’t.
Using the knowledge that Schekman gained from yeast, biotechnology companies were able to get yeast to pump out proteins, including insulin, a protein necessary for diabetics. Now, his research is pointing a potential cause of protein buildup in Alzheimer’s.
This basic research also serves as groundwork for understanding the disease process. Some genetic mutations in this pathway are likely to cause severe diseases. Knowing what those genes and their protein product do normally gives us the ability to understand what they are doing wrong and how to fix it.
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