Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 11, 2013

Two Stanford scientists are Nobel laureates

Thomas Sudhof and Michael Levitt take prizes in Medicine, Chemistry

by Kimberlee D'Ardenne

Stanford University is home to two more Nobel laureates after structural biologist Michael Levitt and Thomas Sudhof, professor of molecular and cellular physiology, won the awards this week.

Levitt, a professor at the School of Medicine, is receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He uses computer models to study biological phenomena, specifically focusing on the structures and interactions of large molecules called macromolecules. Sudhof won the prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on how brain cells communicate.

With the induction of Sudhof and Levitt, the university is now home to 22 living Nobel laureates and nine deceased, according to its website.

Levitt — who shares the $1.2 million prize with Martin Karplus of the University of Strasbourg in France and Harvard University and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California — has researched the intersection of disciplines of computer science and biology since the 1960s, when computers were programmed using holes punched into cards.

"(Levitt) was interdisciplinary before it was fancy to be interdisciplinary," said John L. Hennessey, president of Stanford University. "He was a computer hacker when it was cool."

"My day started at 1 a.m. when I went to sleep," Levitt said Wednesday. "And then I was awoken 10 minutes later," by the phone call from Sweden.

"My phone never rings," he added. "Everyone sends me texts and emails. So when the phone first rang I was sure it was a wrong number. When it rang a second time I picked it up. I immediately heard a Swedish accent and got very excited. It was like having five double espressos."

The South African-born Levitt, who holds U.S., British and Israeli citizenship, joined Stanford's Department of Structural Biology in 1987.

His work in determining the structure of important molecules contributes to understanding their function within the body and also how they might interact with pharmaceutical drugs designed to treat disease.

"Molecules work because of their structure," he said. "And cells worked because of where things are placed inside. The only way to interfere is to first learn their three-dimensional structure. If you wanted to change a city but had no idea of where the buildings are, you would have no idea where to start."

During a Wednesday press conference he recognized his wife of 46 years, Rina, an artist, for supporting him.

"I am a very passionate scientist, but passionate scientists often make very bad husbands," he said.

The couple has three sons and three grandchildren.

He also credited the computer industry for much of the work he accomplished.

"There is a very clear computational aspect in this prize," Levitt said. "One of the problems I suppose with computer science is there is no Nobel Prize for computer science. This award is recognition of the importance of computation in biology."

Thomas Sudhof got the call that he had won the prize as he was driving from Madrid to Baeza, Spain. He shares the prize with James Rothman, a former Stanford professor of biochemistry who now works at Yale University, and Randy Schekman, who did his doctoral work at Stanford and now works at the University of California, Berkeley.

The prize acknowledges the individual contributions of the three scientists to the body of research identifying the biochemical mechanisms by which brain cells, called neurons, bridge physical gaps, called synapses, to communicate information from one cell to another.

Communication across synapses happens because of the function of special parts of neuronal cell walls, called synaptic trafficking proteins. Synaptic trafficking proteins enclose around other molecules, enabling them to be released for travel to a second neuron.

Sudhof's research focused on the attachment of synaptic trafficking proteins to neuronal cell walls.

Knowing how the brain wires itself could help determine how and why connections become dysfunctional, which instead has implications for treating brain diseases such as mental health disorders, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

But the research that remains is daunting, in part because of the massive scale of the brain, which is made up of more than 80 billion neurons. Each one connects to thousands of others, and Sudhof's research shows that even a single synapse is complicated.

"A synapse is not just a relay station. It is not even like a computer chip, which is an immutable element. Every synapse is like a nanocomputer all by itself," he stated in a press release.

The entire brain is often compared to a complex computer. Modeling brain function is an active area of research, and Sudhof said he believes simulating portions of what the brain does is possible.

"I am not sure about simulating the whole brain with computers. To be honest, I am not even sure that is a particularly important goal right now," he said. "My hopes and feelings of success would be much easier to satisfy: if we could find a pathway that causes synapse loss in disease. Maybe we should be a little more humble towards the enormous wonderful organ that is the brain."

Sudhof said he is very optimistic about the possibilities of future work translating into treatment, in spite of the hugeness of the research questions.

"I think we can do it," he said, "but at the same time, it is a really difficult problem."

Editorial Intern Kimberlee D'Ardenne can be emailed at kdardenne@paweekly.com.

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