Five NIGMS Grantees Win 2013 Nobel Prizes

Announcement Date:


The newest member of the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council is Henry T. Greely, J.D., the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law, professor (by courtesy) of genetics and director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University in California. He specializes in the ethical, legal and social implications of new biomedical technologies, particularly those related to neuroscience, genetics and stem cell research. Greely earned an A.B. in political science from Stanford University and a J.D. from Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn. His experience includes being a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and serving in the Departments of Defense and Energy.

The council, which meets three times a year, is composed of leaders in the biological and medical sciences, education, health care and public affairs. Members serve 4-year terms and perform the second level of peer review for grant applications assigned to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), part of the National Institutes of Health. Council members also offer advice and recommendations on policy and program development, program implementation, evaluation and other matters of significance to the mission and goals of NIGMS.

Illustration of vesicular traffic
The winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine discovered that cells import and export materials using fluid-filled sacs called vesicles. The vesicle traffic system allows cells to ingest nutrients, fluids and other molecules; to export hormones, enzymes or lipids; and to dispose of cellular trash. Malfunctions in this system underlie countless diseases, including muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s and leukemia. In this illustration, the top gray arrow shows the cell importing orange particles using vesicles (light green bubbles). The bottom arrow represents cellular export.

Five of the six scientists who will share the 2013 Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine and chemistry have received funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). The Institute has supported the research of 80 Nobel laureates, 40 in physiology or medicine and 40 in chemistry.

“This year’s Nobels exemplify two arms of the NIGMS mission—to understand the nature of basic life processes and to develop new ways to study these processes,” said Jon R. Lorsch, Ph.D., NIGMS director. “The prize in physiology or medicine honors researchers who spent years chipping away at the fundamental mystery of how cells import and export materials. The chemistry prize recognizes scientists who developed a set of revolutionary new computational techniques to study, in unprecedented detail, the molecules essential to life.”

Two long-time NIGMS grantees won the 2013 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine “for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.” They are:

James E. Rothman
Yale University

Randy W. Schekman
University of California, Berkeley

Using completely different techniques—both of which were, at the time, new and risky—Rothman and Schekman independently discovered how cells use small sacs, called vesicles, to import and export materials. Their work revealed a transport system that is tightly tuned, delivering the right amount of cargo to a specified place at the proper time. In the words of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute, “without this wonderfully precise organization, the cell would lapse into chaos.” Among its many essential functions, the vesicle transport system enables brain cell function, the development of organs and the secretion of hormones such as insulin.

Rothman and Schekman will share the prize with Thomas C. Südhof of Stanford University.

Molecular model
Highly accurate molecular models like this one are based on computational techniques developed by the winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry. In orange is a protein called p53 that, when crippled, is linked to cancer. In the green area is a molecule that restores p53 activity and kills cancer cells.

Three NIGMS grantees won the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.” They are:

Martin Karplus
Harvard University

Michael Levitt
Stanford University School of Medicine

Arieh Warshel
University of Southern California

These scientists harnessed computers to calculate the locations, movements and interactions of individual atoms within molecules. The ability to obtain these structural details enabled the development of interactive, 3-D graphical models of proteins and other large molecules. Researchers across the globe now use computer-based modeling for a wide range of purposes, including visualizing and manipulating molecules as they search for drug targets, seek to understand the cause of various diseases and probe the inner workings of basic life processes.

More information about NIGMS support of Nobel Prize winners is available at