NIH Grantees Win Nobel Prizes
Four NIH grantees were honored with Nobel prizes in early October, three in medicine and physiology and one in chemistry.
The 2017 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to grantees Dr. Jeffrey C. Hall of the University of Maine, Orono; Dr. Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University; and Dr. Michael W. Young of Rockefeller University for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said, “The paradigm-shifting discoveries by the laureates established key mechanistic principles for the biological clock.”
Sharing the chemistry prize with two other scientists was grantee Dr. Joachim Frank of Columbia University. He, along with Dr. Jacques Dubochet of the University of Geneva and University of Basel, Switzerland, and Dr. Richard Henderson of Cambridge University, was honored for the development of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), which both simplifies and improves the imaging of biomolecules. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said, “This method has moved biochemistry into a new era.”
For many years, scientists have known that living organisms, including humans, have an internal, biological clock that helps them anticipate and adapt to the regular rhythm of the day. Hall, Rosbash and Young aimed to discover how that clock works. They used fruit flies to isolate the gene called period that controls the normal biological rhythm of the day. Clock genes contain instructions for making clock proteins, whose levels rise and fall in a regular cyclic pattern. The researchers went on to discover that PER, the protein encoded by period, accumulated during the night and was degraded during the day. Their discoveries explain how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.
Our clocks influence alertness, hunger, metabolism, fertility, mood and other physiological conditions. For this reason, clock dysfunction is associated with various disorders, including insomnia, diabetes and depression.
“The work of these Nobel laureates to help us understand how our biological clocks work has shone a light on the significance of circadian rhythms on our health and is informing treatments for sleep disorders, obesity, mental health disorders and other health problems,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. “NIH is proud to have supported this groundbreaking research.”
Young and Rosbash have received continuous funding from NIH since 1975 ($17 million and $8 million, respectively) primarily from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Rosbash’s work has also been supported by the National Institute on Aging, National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. NIGMS also supported Hall’s work, providing more than $7 million in funding.
“This work is a great example of how studying fundamental biological processes in model organisms such as fruit flies reveals important principles that translate into a deeper understanding of human biology and disease,” said NIGMS director Dr. Jon Lorsch.
With respect to the chemistry prize, knowing the structure of a molecule reveals important information about how it functions and can provide insight into potential drug targets for fighting disease. Cryo-EM is a method used to image frozen biological molecules without the use of structure-altering dyes or fixatives or the need to coax the molecules into crystalline form, providing a simpler way to generate pictures of the molecules in their normal states and greater understanding of biological function. With cryo-EM, researchers can advance understanding of life’s chemistry and develop pharmaceuticals.
“The work of these [chemistry] Nobel laureates has been game-changing in our understanding of life’s processes and identifying molecular targets for drug development,” said Collins. “NIH is investing heavily in the further development of this technology through the NIH Common Fund’s Transformative High Resolution cryo-EM Program, which aims to improve access for researchers through the creation of national service centers, continued advancement of the technology and developing the skills that researchers need to use this technology.”
Frank has received continuous funding from NIGMS since 1978, having received more than $25 million to date.
“One of the beauties of this prize is that it isn’t just looking backward at what happened in the past, it’s also looking to the future,” said Lorsch. “Recent advances in cryo-EM—made possible by the three winners—are allowing us to make unprecedented advances in areas from our basic understanding of cellular processes to the development of new vaccines.”