Shelly Fleet has checked the list of Nobel Prize winners each year since her fellow Haverhill native James Rothman won the prestigious Albert Lasky Award for medical research in 2002.
“I always thought it would be him one day,” said Fleet, who got to know Rothman during the late 1960s, when their families were members of the Haverhill Country Club and both of them were in college.
Yesterday, the wait ended when Rothman, a noted cell biologist, was named co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for helping define how cells transport major molecules in a cargo system that delivers them to the right place at the right time in cells.
By uncovering how cells ship their cargoes with timing and precision, the work of Rothman’s group provides clues about new ways to combat diseases such as diabetes and helps the fight against cancer.
“I’ve been checking every year since the Lasker Award, waiting for him to receive the Nobel,” said Fleet, an anesthesiologist at Florida Hospital in Orlando.
Rothman was born in Haverhill in 1950, the son of Dr. Martin Rothman, a well-known local pediatrician, and Gloria Rothman.
He attended Walnut Square and Whittier Middle schools before going to a private preparatory school. He studied physics at Yale University, graduating in 1971, and earned his PhD in biological chemistry from Harvard Medical School in 1976. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in 1978 he moved to Stanford University in California, where he started his research on the vesicles of the cell.
“I remember him from the Haverhill Country Club in the 1960s and how smart he was,” said Fleet, a member of the Haverhill High School Class of 1965.
“He was a teenager and I was 20 at the time when we became friends,” she said. “He was a brilliant student and I do remember he developed his own system of calculus to describe a rocket’s trajectory. He was fascinating on many levels and obviously a genius and quite creative as well.’’
Yesterday, Mayor James Fiorentini’s Facebook page was buzzing with talk about native son Rothman having won the Nobel Prize. Fiorentini posted that he would reach out to Rothman and invite him to Haverhill to honor him.
Timothy Coco, vice president of the Haverhill Citizens Hall of Fame, said he expects Rothman to someday be included among that select group of citizens who have made significant contributions to the larger community of state, nation and world.
But, Rothman does not meet one essential criteria at this time.
Induction to the Haverhill Citizens Hall of Fame requires that nominees have a substantive Haverhill connection, and have significantly impacted society beyond Haverhill’s borders. And in order to allow for the benefit and added perspective of time, the individual must be deceased for at least one year.
“The Haverhill Citizens Hall of Fame inspires our youth to do great things and show them hat no matter their roots, they can go on to achieve greatness,” Coco said.
Dr. Sam Amari of Haverhill didn’t know James Rothman, but had the pleasure of meeting his father, Dr. Martin Rothman, when he retired in 1983 and put his office at 640 Main St. on the market.
“I heard it was for sale and I bought it as an investment, then sold it in 2004,” Amari said. “The father was brilliant and so is the son.
“How many people have a chance to win a Nobel Prize?” Amari said. “It’s a great honor to know the doctor’s son (James Rothman) attended Haverhill’s school system.”
Rothman has worked at Princeton University, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute and Columbia University. In 2008, he joined the faculty of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he is currently Professor and Chairman in the Department of Cell Biology.
The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm announced yesterday that it awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to Rothman; Randy Schekman, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley; and Thomas Suedhof, a physiology professor at Stanford University. The three scientists will share the $1.25 million prize, the Nobel Assembly announced.
According to the Nobel Assembly, the three scientists solved the mystery of how the cell organizes its transport system. Each cell is a factory of sorts that produces and exports molecules. For instance, insulin is manufactured and released into the blood and chemical signals called neurotransmitters are sent from one nerve cell to another. These molecules are transported around the cell in small packages called vesicles. The three Nobel recipients discovered the molecular principles that govern how this cargo is delivered to the right place at the right time in the cell.
Schekman discovered a set of genes that was required for vesicle traffic. Rothman unraveled protein machinery that allows vesicles to fuse with their targets to permit transfer of cargo, while Suedhof revealed how signals instruct vesicles to release their cargo with precision.
Through their discoveries, the three scientists revealed the precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo. Disturbances in this system contribute to conditions such as neurological diseases, diabetes, and immunological disorders, according to the Nobel Assembly.
In 2002, Rothman and Schekman shared in the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for defining key mechanisms of how specialized cells carry out their functions. At the time, Rothman was head of the Laboratory of Cellular Biochemistry at Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
Harold Varmus, Sloan-Kettering president, spoke about the significance of Rothman’s work when the Lasker Award was announced.
“Jim Rothman’s research has answered some of the most fundamental questions about cell biology,” Varmus said. “His contributions have allowed us to visualize processes inside the cell and get a very clear picture of how cells compartmentalize their functions and move those compartments in highly specific ways.”
Sloan-Kettering director Thomas Kelly said Rothman’s work is critical to the effort to conquer cancer.
“To understand what goes wrong in cancer cells, we first need to understand how normal cells function, and Dr. Rothman has contributed much toward that effort,” Kelly said.
Lasker Awards have been given since 1946, honoring scientists, physicians and public servants who have advanced the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, prevention and cure of diseases.