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October 2, 2017

Nobel Prize in medicine goes to US scientists for research on body’s internal clock

Daily Briefing

Three U.S. scientists—Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael Young—on Monday were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work explaining how molecular mechanisms control a body's biological rhythm, also known as the circadian rhythm.

According to the Nobel Prize Committee, the three scientists "peek[ed] inside our biological clock and elucidate[d] … how plants, animals, and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth's revolutions."

Hall is a professor emeritus of biology at Brandeis University, Rosbash is a professor of biology and holds an endowed chair in neuroscience at Brandeis, and Young is a professor of genetics at Rockefeller University.

Research details

The three scientists in 1984 worked with fruit flies to isolate a gene—called "period"—responsible for controlling the fruit flies' daily biological rhythm, including critical functions related to behavior, body temperature, hormone levels, sleep, and metabolism. According to the New York Times, this discovery was relevant to all organisms, including humans, as they all operate on 24-hour rhythms that influence wakefulness, sleep, and overall physiology.

The scientists discovered the period gene encodes a protein, which they called PER, that operates on a 24-hour cycle, accumulating in the cell at night and degrading during the day. In further research, the scientists discovered other components to PER, including one "that allows light to influence the 24-hour rhythm," the Times reports.            

According to the Washington Post's "To Your Health," misalignments in this cycle have been linked to medical conditions and disorders—such as Alzheimer's disease, depression, diabetes, and heart disease—as well as jet lag after flying across different time zones. 

Frank Scheer, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Medical Chronobiology Program at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said, "This is great recognition for the field of circadian rhythms that are intimately linked to our health and disease, including diabetes, obesity, cancer, and cardiovascular disease."

According to The Guardian, Hall, Rosbash, and Young will share the 9m Swedish kronor ($1.1 million) prize, and each will receive an engraved medal (Kolata, New York Times, 10/2; Eunjung Cha, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 10/2; "Science Now," AP/Los Angeles Times, 10/2; Nobel Prize release, 10/2; Davis/Sample, The Guardian, 10/2).

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