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Research Laskers Awarded for Neuroscience Work

By Anette Breindl
Science Editor

The 2013 Lasker Awards were announced this morning, with basic and clinical awards both going for advances in the field of neuroscience, albeit of a very different kind.<?xml:namespace prefix = o />

The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award was shared by Thomas Sudhof and Richard Scheller, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation said, “for discoveries concerning the molecular machinery and regulatory mechanism that underlie the rapid release of neurotransmitters.”

The Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award went to Graeme Clark, Ingeborg Hochmair, and Blake Wilson “for the development of the modern cochlear implant – a device that bestows hearing to individuals with profound deafness.”

And the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award was awarded to two of the richest individuals in the world, who have improved the lot of millions of the poorest. Bill and Melinda Gates were honored “for leading a historic transformation in the way we view the globe’s most pressing health concerns and improving the lives of millions of the world’s most vulnerable.”

Speaking to BioWorld Today last week, basic award winner Sudhof, who is at Stanford University, gave the impression of a person who can simultaneously see the big picture, and its smallest details.

The work being recognized by the basic research is the most detailed of ventures, the exploration of a complex molecular machinery – none of whose components were known when Sudhof and Scheller (who is now at Genentech Inc. but was at Stanford at the time) independently began their explorations.

Neurons communicate with each other at junctions known as synapses, where a presynaptic neuron releases transmitter that crosses the synaptic cleft and stimulates receptors on the postsynaptic neuron. How that transmitter release happens in response to an electrical impulse running down the neuron’s axon was a mystery at the time, but it was clear that calcium entered the presynaptic terminal when that electrical impulse arrived.

Sudhof and Scheller identified the major protein players in the process – known as VAMP or synaptobrevin, syntaxin, and SNAP-25 – and worked out how calcium binding can lead to transmitter release in a matter of milliseconds.

But despite his contribution to understanding its details, Sudhof has kept his sense of mystery about his chosen subject.

“I find it amazing that the brain works,” he said. “I find it very unlikely.”

This is the fourth award Sudhof and Scheller have shared for their insights into synaptic transmission, and Sudhof said it is one that is very meaningful to him.

“I like, as much as anyone, patents and companies and practical things,” he told BioWorld Today. But although his work has practical implications for many neuropsychiatric diseases, from autism to schizophrenia – one research area of his laboratory these days is neurexin, which he described as the only single gene where mutations have a massive effect on schizophrenia risk in more than just one family ‑ “what I value about this award for me personally is that the Lasker really has a tradition of acknowledging true, hardcore science, not just a blip that looks important for a moment . . . As an award, I have always admired it.”