U.C. Berkeley, Stanford professors win Nobel Prizes

Randy Schekman, professor of molecular and cell biology at U.C. Berkeley, has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and Michael Levitt, professor in cancer research and computer science at Stanford University, has been named winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Both will share the prizes with two of their colleagues.

Randy Schekman photo/wikimedia

Schekman, along with another Jewish scientist, James Rothman of Yale University, and Thomas Südhof of Stanford University, were honored for their research on protein transport in cells, elucidating the process by which cells secrete hormones and enzymes. Schekman’s research focused on how yeast secretes proteins; his discoveries helped fuel the growth of the biotechnology industry.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God!’ Schekman, 64, told the U.C. Berkeley Media Center. “That was also my second reaction.”

Schekman is Cal’s 22nd Nobel laureate and the first to receive the prize in the area of physiology or medicine. He has been investigating the protein secretion process in yeast since he joined Cal in 1976. His findings enabled the bio-tech industry in the 1980s and ’90s to create pharmaceutical products, including insulin for diabetics and most of the hepatitis B vaccine used around the world today. Schekman is now investigating a possible link to Alzheimer’s disease.

The trio beat out two Israeli contenders, Hebrew University professors Howard Cedar and Aharon Razin, who were considered to be the frontrunners leading up to the announcement, according to jns.org.

Michael Levitt photo/steve fisch

Levitt, an Israeli citizen and native of Pretoria, South Africa, was a professor at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science in the 1980s. He shares the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with Israeli-born Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California and Martin Karplus of the University of Strasbourg in France and Harvard University, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria.

They won for “the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems” because “computer models mirroring real life have become crucial for most advances made in chemistry today,” the Royal Swedish Academy said in a statement.

In a statement that highlighted Israel’s famed “brain drain,” when asked why he left the Weizmann Institute for the U.S., Levitt said, “Because I didn’t get tenured there [in Israel] and it was critical in those years of work.”

In response, Weizmann issued a statement saying, “Professor Levitt was the head of the Department of Chemical Physics at the Weizmann Institute. He was a member professor and had tenure and until today was considered a guest professor.” — jta, ynetnews.com & j. staff