Wednesday, October 9, 2013

2013 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine/Physiology

At 5:30 am Eastern Standard Time on Monday, October 7, the 2013 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine/Physiology was announced. The lucky winners are James Rothman of Yale, Randy W. Schekman of Berkeley, and Thomas C. Südhof of Stanford who are awarded for their fundamental discoveries in vesicular trafficking. 
Now, why should a lay person care? Well, here is a cell, and the little tiny dots you see are vesicles moving. That's vesicular trafficking. As we walk around, meandering at the mall, not caring about life's little troubles, these are membrane-enclosed bubbles have more point to them. Cells move molecules around using the teeny,tiny packages called vesicles. These vesicles bud off from cellular compartments and then transport their cargo inside or outside of the cell and release their contents at the intended place and time. It's a very efficient machinery that sustains the balance in your system int the most microscopic way. And that what these 3 scientists discovered. Worth the shared $1.2 million prize? If you know the meticulous works that go into working with these things, let alone discovering them at a time when technology is very limited, then I say YES.

Schekman discovered the genes required for the transport, while Rothman determined the proteins which allow vesicles to fuse with their targets and thus transfer materials. Südhof discovered the molecular triggers or signals that tell vesicles to expel their cargo.


With brilliant minds deservingly vying for fame, fortune and more fame, controversies are expected. Some people (and postdocs) have very strong opinions on who should hold this prestige, and are ready to raise their pitchforks at possible snubs of their idols. Perhaps the most famous one of which is Rosalind Franklin, when the 1962 prize was awarded to James D. Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material". Rosalind Franklin's key DNA X-ray crystallography work contributed directly to Watson and Crick's insight to solve the DNA molecule's structure. However, she passed away in 1958, deeming her ineligible for the prize.

Some other notable controversies:
The 1923 Nobel prize was awarded to
Frederick Banting and John Macleod "for the discovery of insulin", but the Banting complained that his fellow awardee did not deserve it. After all the drama, it was found that Nicolae Paulescu may have isolated insulin a year earlier, but using a different name. He called it pancrein. 

Of more recent controversy, the 2011 Nobel prize in Medicine and Physiology was awarded to immunologist
Ralph Steinman, who, unknown to the committee, died of cancer three days before. It is common knowledge that the Nobel prize prohibit posthumous awards (as was the case against awarding to Rosalind Franklin). Clearly, Steinman's death created a dilemma but the committee decided to stick with the decision and award it "in good faith."

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