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Stanford's Thomas Südhof wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine

Stanford's Thomas Südhof wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine

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Updated 9:56 AM: Researchers have been weighing in on the Nobel win all morning, with Bill Wickner, MD, a molecular biologist at Dartmouth University, telling Nature it was “long overdue.” Mike Cousin, PhD, a cell biologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, agreed, saying in the Wall Street Journal that “this discovery has underpinned a lot of cell biology research over the past 20 years.”

Südhof spent 25 years at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, starting off by working in the laboratory of Michael Brown, MD, and Joseph Goldstein, MD, who shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. “Thomas Südhof is a biomedical exceptionalist – like Babe Ruth was an exceptionalist in baseball, Leonard Bernstein in music, and Steve Jobs in computers,” Goldstein said this morning. “Having done his Nobel work at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Thomas is our sixth faculty member to win a Nobel Prize.”

Closer to home, Nobel Laureate Roger Kornberg, PhD, called Südhof’s work “brilliant,” and Axel Brunger, PhD, said the research “has set the stage for a deep understanding of the complexities of neuronal communication.” As chair of molecular and cellular physiology, Brunger said he’s “thrilled and proud that we have such outstanding and amazing research going on in our department.”

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Updated 7:30 AM: Some other nice background on Südhof’s work, and his “absolute dedication to science,” can be found in a 2011 piece from the Simons Foundation. And this 2010 Q&A from The Lancet is a quick and enjoyable read. In it, Südhof reveals his most influential teacher (his bassoon teacher) and shares his thoughts on the most neglected areas of medicine:

No 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.

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Updated 6:37 AM: My colleague Krista Conger has more details on Südhof’s award and his reaction to the win today. “Every scientist dreams of this,” he told her, adding, “I didn’t realize there was chance I would be awarded the prize.” As Conger goes on to describe:

Südhof, the Avram Goldstein Professor in the School of Medicine, received the award for his work in exploring how neurons in the brain communicate with one another across gaps called synapses. Although his work has focused on the minutiae of how molecules interact on the cell membranes, the fundamental questions he’s pursuing are large.

“The brain works by neurons communicating via synapses,” Südhof said in a phone conversation this morning. “We’d like to understand how synapses come to learning on a larger scale. How are the specific connections established? How do they form? And what happens in schizophrenia and autism, when these connections are compromised?”

[Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, said,] “He has patiently but relentlessly probed one of the fundamental questions of medical science — perhaps the fundamental question in neuroscience: How nerve cells communicate with each other. The answer is at the crux of human biology and of monumental importance to human health. Dr. Südhof’s receipt of this prize is inordinately well-deserved, and I offer him my heartfelt congratulations. His accomplishment represents what Stanford Medicine and the biomedical revolution are all about.”

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Updated 5:53 AM: So, where was Südhof when he got the big news? “I got the call while I was driving [in Spain] and like a good citizen I pulled over and picked up the phone,” he told the Associated Press this morning. “To be honest, I thought at first it was a joke. I have a lot of friends who might play these kinds of tricks.”

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Updated 4:36 AM: Südhof shares the prize with James Rothman, PhD, from Yale University and Randy Schekman, PhD, from UC-Berkeley. Over on Forbes, contributor David Kroll makes an interesting observation about the winners:

Two of the three laureates trained themselves with previous Nobel laureates. Scheckman did his PhD work in 1974 with legendary molecular biologist Arthur Kornberg (Physiology or Medicine 1959) while Südhof was a postdoctoral fellow with the cholesterol biology pioneers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein (Physiology or Medicine 1985).

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2:45 AM: Stanford molecular neuroscientist Thomas Südhof, MD, at the Stanford University School of Medicine, has been named a co-winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. An announcement was just made by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, which said the award was for “discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.”

The news comes one year after Stanford’s Brian Kobilka, MD, was named co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. We’ll post more details here as the day progresses; you can also get updates on Twitter by following our @SUMedicine feed or following the hashtag #SUNobel.

Congratulations, Dr. Südhof!

Previously: Stanford molecular neuroscientist Thomas Südhof wins coveted Lasker Award and Stanford’s Brian Kobilka wins 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Photo by Steve Fisch

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