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.