Skip to content

The lure of research: How Nobel winner Thomas Südhof came to work in the basic sciences

synapseIf there's any award more coveted among basic scientists than the Lasker Award, it's the Nobel Prize. The former is often said to be a gateway to the latter.

And sure enough, Stanford neuroscientist Tom Südhof, MD, who won the Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research a month ago, has won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his trailblazing research on the workings of the synapse.

Granted, "synapse" isn't exactly a household word. But that's basic science for you. For an in-depth explanation of how synapses work, please check our news release on Südhof's Lasker announcement. For now I'll just say that a synapse is a junction where information (in the form of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters) is passed from one neuron to another. Your brain contains maybe 2 quadrillion of them - as many as the number of stars in 10,000 Milky Way galaxies.

Importantly, synapses' misfirings, overly strong or weak connections or outright disappearance are increasingly understood to underlie most neurological disorders. Figuring out how synapses work, how they can go wrong and how to keep them robust promises to cure or prevent orders of magnitude more neurological disease than any single physician ever could.

Südhof is a basic scientist's basic scientist, according to his colleagues. He has a near-photographic memory, a laser focus, and burning intellectual curiosity. But in his early years, he told me, he figured he was headed for a career as a hands-on primary-care doctor.

"I initially intended to be a practicing physician," he told me. "I regret that I haven't seen patients for 30 years, and I never will. It was a very important component of my own training. I am still extremely interested in medicine."

Born and educated in Germany, Südhof graduated from high school at age 19 in 1977 and headed straight to medical school. But his career took a turn when, after obtaining an MD and completing a postdoctoral stint, he headed to the United States to take another postdoctoral position in the legendary shared lab of Joseph Goldstein, MD, and Michael Brown, MD, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. In 1985, those two researchers shared something else: A Nobel Prize in Medicine for their groundbreaking studies of cholesterol metabolism and, in particular, LDL (low-density lipoprotein), one of the single most important proteins in cardiovascular medicine.

In that lab, Südhof learned the secret arts of molecular biology - so well, in fact, that Goldstein and Brown prevailed on him to forgo his plans to become a practitioner and cast his fate with basic research.

"Their thought was that my work in science might be, overall, more productive than if I spent a lot of my time in the clinic," Südhof explained. When he set up own lab, he shifted his focus from cardiovascular lipid metabolism to neuroscience.

"As a medical student I had interacted with patients suffering from neurodegeneration or acute clinical schizophrenia," Südhof said. "It left an indelible mark on my memory."

Herein lay the lab bench's potential, Südhof recalls thinking. "We pretty much know how to build a bridge or an airplane. But nobody knows how to deal with mental or neuropsychiatric disorders. We're only now beginning."

Previously: Celebrate good (Nobel) times – come on!, Stanford’s Thomas Südhof wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Stanford molecular neuroscientist Thomas Sudhof wins coveted Lasker Award, You've got a lot of nerve! Industrial-scale procedure for generating plenty of personalized nerve cells, Revealed: The likely role of Parkinson's protein in the healthy brain and Key Parkinson's-disease-associated molecule's function identified
Photo by Shutterstock

Popular posts