Sorting Things Out – Nobel Prize Winners and Funding for Basic Research
What do James Rothman, Randy Schekman, and Thomas Südhof all have in common?
They just won the 2013 Nobel Prize In Medicine Or Physiology.
When I was a graduate student, I avidly read papers from these three men. Their important research discovered how cells carry out a very basic function: how proteins are moved around within a cell, and how they are released out of the cell.
Their research is basic research at its best; they spent decades figuring out a fundamental problem – years in which they were not necessarily studying how to stop a particular disease or develop a vaccine, but just determine how things work. This is the type of research that is becoming undervalued in our society because people can not see the benefit unless there is a direct impact on their lives. The story of protein movement is a perfect example of why basic research is important.
Cells are protein factories. They spend the day churning out a huge variety of proteins. Some of these proteins are required by the cell to keep it functioning and healthy and therefore need to be kept within the cell, while other proteins are needed at remote sites in the body and are released out of the cell.
The inside of the cell is a messy place. It is chock full of proteins and specific structures with in each cell called organelles. Each organelle has its own job, contributing to the overall function of the cell. When proteins are made, they need to be delivered to the correct organelle or pumped out of the cell. It is a traffic control nightmare.
Together, Rothman, Schekman and Südhof discovered that once made, proteins are sorted into small travel bubbles called vesicles. The vesicles are coated with proteins that act as little molecular zip codes directing the vesicles to the correct address, whether it be an organelle or delivery out of the cell. Once the vesicle has reached the right place, the vesicle releases the proteins.
Specifically, Schekman discovered a set of genes that act as zip codes directing traffic of the vesicles, Rothman determined how vesicles dump the proteins out at the correct site, and Südhof discovered how the release of proteins could be controlled such that they are released at only certain times.
Although their findings initially began as basic research, their research explains how the pancreas releases insulin, how brain cells communicate with one another and how the body releases the powerful germ-fighting antibodies. All of these process are integral in maintaining a healthy person. Further work based on their studies has led to the development of yeast that make insulin (for treatment of diabetes), led to the diagnosis of a rare form of epilepsy and immuonodeficiency in children and is helping to understand the protein buildup that occurs in Alzheimer’s patients.
I think we can all agree that their basic research is proving extremely helpful.
Unbelievably, Rothman lost his NIH funding for the research he won the award for!
In interviews about winning the Nobel prize, all three Nobel winners expressed concern and frustration with the current funding situation. In the short-term, the US government shutdown has led to a suspension of grant applications. But in the long-term, the NIH budget has been repeatedly cut; in 2013, NIH received a budget cut of 5.5%, leading to 650 less grants that can be funded. The current success rate of an NIH grant is at an all time low, 14%. That means that 86% of grant submissions will not get funded. And support for basic research is on the wane as agencies strive to fund grants that will show direct benefit.
If they began their careers in this funding climate, it is doubtful that these three Nobel laureates would have been successful.
Seems like something else needs to be sorted out.