NEW YORK — Two Americans and a German-American won the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for illuminating how tiny bubbles inside cells shuttle key substances around like a vast and highly efficient fleet of vans, delivering the right cargo to the right place at the right time.
Scientists believe the research could eventually lead to new medicines for epilepsy, diabetes and other metabolism deficiencies.
The work has already helped doctors diagnose a severe form of epilepsy and immune deficiency diseases in children. And it has helped guide research into the brain and many neurological diseases, and opened the door for biotech companies to make yeast pump out large quantities of useful proteins like insulin.
The $1.2 million prize will be shared by James Rothman, 62, of Yale University, Randy Schekman, 64, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Dr. Thomas Sudhof, 57, of Stanford University.
They unlocked the mysteries of the cell's internal transport system, which relies on bubble-like structures called vesicles to deliver substances the cell needs. The fleet of vesicles is sort of the FedEx of the cellular world.
When a pancreas cell releases insulin or one brain cell sends out a chemical messenger to talk to a neighboring one, for example, the vesicles have to deliver those substances to the right places on the cell surface. They also ferry cargo between different parts of a cell.
"Imagine hundreds of thousands of people who are traveling around hundreds of miles of streets; how are they going to find the right way? Where will the bus stop and open its doors so that people can get out?" Nobel committee secretary Goran Hansson said. "There are similar problems in the cell."
Jeremy Berg, former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Md., said the prize was long overdue and widely expected because the work was "so fundamental and has driven so much other research."