Lasker award given to neurotransmitter researchers
The Lasker award for basic medical research has been awarded to Richard Scheller and Thomas Sudhof for their work on neurotransmission. The Lasker awards, which focus on medical advances, often presage future winners of the Nobel Prize, including John Gurdon, Shinya Yamanaka, Ralph Steinman, Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Grieder and Jack Szostak from just the past four years.
Neurotransmission research has a long history, as scientists have gradually unveiled the complexities of the mind over the past century. There have been several Nobel Prize winners working in this field including Eric Kandel and Richard Axel, who were Scheller’s mentors as a post-doctoral researcher. The work leading up this point had revealed that neurones release chemicals to transmit messages across synapses, the gaps between neighbouring neurones, and that these can have profound effects on the functions of brain cells. Scheller and Sudhof dug deeper and unravelled the complexity of the proteins that control these processes.
Despite the impact they made within the same field, Scheller and Sudhof never worked together and were driven by a degree of friendly competition. When Sudhof isolated the protein synaptobrevin from a rat’s brain, it turned out to be the same protein that Scheller had discovered a year earlier in an electric ray. This was the first of several discoveries that led the two to an understanding of how neurotransmitters are controlled and released.
Scheller focussed his work on isolating proteins from cells, while Sudhof embraced new techniques in genetics to selectively remove and replace proteins in mice. Gradually, they were able to build a model of how these different proteins interact and release neurotransmitters in response to a surge of calcium ions.
This understanding has led to new targets for treating neurological diseases and may one day result in new treatments. So perhaps it won’t be too long before they too get a call from Sweden!