stanford medicine


Stockholm fairy tale

In Brief

Twice charmed

Stockholm fairy tale

2013 was a very good year for Stanford Medicine, with two faculty members winning Nobel prizes. Thomas Südhof, MD, professor of molecular and cellular physiology, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 7. Two days later, Michael Levitt, PhD, professor of structural biology, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

They accepted these most desired of awards in December at the Stockholm Concert Hall in Sweden.

Südhof got the call that he had won the prize while driving in Spain to a symposium. “I cannot tell you how much I enjoy what I do,” Südhof said when he got the news. “I have always considered it an enormous privilege to be a scientist.”

He shared the $1.2 million prize with James Rothman, PhD, a former Stanford professor of biochemistry, and Randy Schekman, PhD, who earned his doctorate at Stanford under the late Arthur Kornberg, MD, another laureate. Rothman is a professor at Yale, and Schekman, a professor at UC-Berkeley. They were awarded the prize “for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.”

These vesicles are essentially bubbles that deliver materials from inside cells to outside. They do this by carrying substances inside them, moving to the edge of the cell, fusing with the cell’s outer membrane and then spilling their contents overboard.

Südhof’s research focuses on how this happens in neurons. He purified key protein constituents sticking out of the surfaces of neurotransmitter-
containing vesicles, protruding from nearby cell membranes, or bridging them. Then he elucidated how the interactions among these proteins contribute to membrane fusion. As a result, signal transmission between neurons is today one of the best-understood phenomena in neuroscience.

Levitt’s award, which he shared with Martin Karplus, PhD, of Harvard and the University of Strasbourg in France, and Arieh Warshel, PhD, of USC, is “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.” They dramatically advanced the field of structural biology by developing computer algorithms to build models of complex biological molecules — protein, DNA and RNA — that are responsible for life at its fundamental level. Delineating the precise molecular structures of biological molecules is a necessary first step in understanding how they work and in designing drugs to alter their function.

Levitt’s research set the stage for most subsequent work in the rapidly growing field. It also led to methods for making non-human antibodies more similar to humans’, which was key to developing anticancer therapies such as Avastin — one of the world’s most prescribed cancer drugs.

“Like everyone else, one is surprised,” Levitt said of receiving the early morning call from Sweden. “Now I just hope to get through the day and make sure that, in the end, my life doesn’t change very much. Because I really have a wonderful life.”


Additional writing and reporting by Krista Conger and Bruce Goldman
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Photo: At the 2013 Nobel ceremony, the laureates receive their diplomas and medals on the Stockholm Concert Hall stage. Stanford’s Michael Levitt stands at front left, Stanford’s Thomas Südhof steps forward.






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