Americans win Nobel medicine prize for circadian rhythm work

3 Americans win Nobel Prize in medicine for uncovering the science behind our biological clocks

Photographs of Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, were shown at the award announcement in Stockholm on Monday.

STOCKHOLM—Three Americans won this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling biological rhythms.

Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young received the prize for research that led to the understanding of how plants, animals and humans synchronize their biological clocks with the Earth’s revolutions.

Using flies for their research, the biologists were able to isolate a gene that governs the normal daily biological rhythm. They elucidated clockwork mechanisms in which the gene is active or inhibited depending on oscillation in the level of a protein.

Our biological clock helps to regulate sleep patterns, feeding behavior, hormone release, blood pressure and body temperature. (Nobelprize.org)

The trio’s work gave rise to the understanding of molecular clocks in all of biology, said Russell Foster, head of the Sleep and Circadian Neuro-science Institute at the University of Oxford.

“Many of us have built our careers on the layer above this,” he said.

The research has also had implications in scientists’ understanding of how night and day cycles influence the human clock, and how things can go wrong when we behave out of sync with our inner timekeeper, hopscotching time zones, for instance.

“It raises awareness to proper sleep hygiene,” said Juleen Zierath, a member of the Nobel Committee.

Nobel committee Secretary General Thomas Perlmann reached both Dr. Hall and Dr. Rosbash by phone early Monday morning to inform them of the award, which comes with a check for nine million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million).

Dr. Rosbash, a 73-year-old biologist at Brandeis University near Boston, was silent at first, said Mr. Perlmann. When he finally found words, he said: “You’re kidding me.”

Dr. Rosbash, the son of Jewish immigrants who escaped from Nazi Germany in 1938, is a well-known figure at Brandeis. He attends basketball and soccer games, and is a regular presence at the annual Student Open House, where he discusses his research with prospective students.

He and Dr. Hall both arrived at Brandeis in 1974. Dr. Hall, 72, is a professor emeritus of biology and now lives in Maine.

Dr. Young is a biologist at Rockefeller University in New York City. Speaking Monday at a press conference there, he said he “had trouble getting my shoes on this morning,” forgetting first his socks and then that he needed to put his pants on before his shoes.

Dr. Young, 68, said he has been working on the question of how the circadian clock works for most of his career, including as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1975, and at Rockefeller, where he has been working since 1978.

When he began his career, Dr. Young recounted, technological advances that allow the exact copying of specific genes and DNA sequences were just beginning. “You could pick anything in the world to work on,” he said.

He chose the genes that control circadian rhythm in fruit flies, hoping they would prove to be the same in other organisms, especially humans. They did.

From left: Dr. Rosbash, Dr. Young and Dr. Hall.

By identifying the basic machinery of the body clock, researchers hope to develop ways to treat a variety of rhythmic, sleep and mood disorders, Dr. Young said in an interview. “The first line of attack is to understand what the basic machinery looks like,” said Dr. Young. “Once you know the parts of the machine, you can try to fix them.”

Scientists have linked disruption in the sleep-wake cycle to myriad health problems, including an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Although the medical application of circadian-rhythm biology is still a young field, early efforts are under way to develop treatments that can stabilize sleep-wake cycles in people whose circadian rhythms have been disrupted, like night-shift workers, said Prof. Foster.

At a press conference at Brandeis on Monday, Dr. Rosbash said the full impact of research on the link between disruptions of the biological clock and human diseases “has not been felt yet.” “It’s coming,” he said, “but is not yet here.”

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