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Stanford University School of Medicine

Stanford’s Michael Levitt wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Updated 9:15 AM: For those who want to join the Nobel excitement, a press conference with Levitt is being held at 10 AM Pacific time and will be live-streamed here. The news conference will include remarks from Stanford President John Hennessy, PhD, and Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the medical school. We'll also share highlights of the conference here later today.


Updated 8:53 AM: Some outside comment now on today's prize. From the Wall Street Journal:

[The three winners] effectively turned computers into useful test tubes for advanced chemistry. And by doing so, experts said, the three Nobel laureates also changed the professional culture of chemistry, bridging the gap between theoretical chemists and experimentalists.

"They have done something extraordinary," said theoretical chemist Gunnar Karlstorm, a member of the Nobel chemistry committee. "They made theory an equal partner of experiment. This was unthinkable 20 years ago."


Updated 7:30 AM: While talking with the Associated Press today, Levitt noted that his work was done when he was 20, even before he earned his PhD. "It was just me being in the right place at the right time and maybe having a few good ideas," he said, adding that he was pleased that the field of computational biology is being recognized through this award.

Meanwhile, those at Stanford are weighing in on Levitt's win. "The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is perfectly fitting for Mike's contributions to chemistry and medicine and a clear example of the value of basic theoretical research to practical medicine," Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the medical school, said this morning. "Today we take computer modeling in biology for granted, but Dr. Levitt was one of its pioneers..."


Updated 6:12 AM: Our website now contains more details on Levitt's work, and his reaction to the prize. My colleague Krista Conger writes:

Levitt's work focuses on theoretical, computer-aided analysis of the protein, DNA and RNA molecules responsible for life at it most 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.

"Like everyone else, one is surprised," said Levitt of the early morning call. "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.

Conger also discusses the collaboration between Levitt and one of his co-winners:

Levitt and Warshel worked together in the 1970s in the laboratory of Shneior Lifson at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. "We had the idea about doing computer calculations on the large molecules that make life possible," said Levitt, who said he was relieved to hear whom he shares the prize with.

"One would hate to win the prize if people who also deserved it didn't get it," said Levitt. "So I was very pleased to hear their names."


Updated 5:09 AM: Who was the first person Levitt called to share the news of his prize? His 98-year-old mother in London. And what he is doing this hour? Live interviews with local TV crews, at his home on the Stanford campus.


Updated 4:56 AM: Levitt shares this prize with Martin Karplus, PhD, of the Université de Strasbourg, France and Harvard Univerity, and Arieh Warshel, PhD, of the University of Southern California. As reported by NPR, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said of the three scientists' work:

Chemists used to create models of molecules using plastic balls and sticks. Today, the modelling is carried out in computers. In the 1970s, Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel laid the foundation for the powerful programs that are used to understand and predict chemical processes. Computer models mirroring real life have become crucial for most advances made in chemistry today.


3:09 AM: Moments ago, we learned from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that Michael Levitt, PhD, the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor in Cancer Research, is winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The award was given for "the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems."

What a week for Stanford's School of Medicine! The news comes two days after Stanford molecular neuroscientist Thomas Südhof, MD, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. (In addition, Stanford's Brian Kobilka, MD, shared the chemistry prize last year.) We're thrilled about the news, and we'll post details here and on our Twitter feed as the day progresses.

Previously: Stanford’s Thomas Südhof wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Stanford’s Brian Kobilka wins 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Photo by Steve Fisch

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