German Scientist Wins Nobel Prize for Medicine
Susanna Loof,
Associated Press Writer

2:03 PM EST; October 11, 1999; Stockholm, SWEDEN (AP) -- Dr. Guenter Blobel of The Rockefeller University in New York won the Nobel Prize for medicine today for protein research that shed new light on diseases including Cystic Fibrosis and early development of kidney stones. Blobel, 63, a native of Germany who became a U.S. citizen in the 1980s, was cited for discovering that proteins carry signals that act as "zip codes," helping them find their correct locations within the cell. Some hereditary diseases are caused by errors in these signals and the associated transport mechanisms, the Nobel Assembly said in announcing the prize. The work has helped scientists use cells in laboratories to churn out drugs, and has had an "immense impact" on studies of the cell, the assembly said.

Blobel was born in the town of Waltersdorf, Silesia, in present-day Poland, in 1936. His family moved to Freiberg, in Germany's Eastern Saxony state, after World War II. Because his family was relatively well off and did not conform to communist ideals, Blobel was not allowed to continue his studies in former East Germany and he left for West Germany. The rest of the family followed shortly thereafter. After getting his medical degree in 1960 at the University in Tuebingen, he went to the United States, where he received a Ph.D. in Oncology in 1967 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The prize announcement said Blobel's work explained the molecular roots of several genetic diseases. They include Primary Hyperoxaluria, which causes kidney stones at an early age, as well as some forms of inherited high cholesterol and illnesses like Cystic Fibrosis that occur when proteins fail to reach their proper positions within a cell.

Blobel, a cellular and molecular biologist, discovered in the early 1970s that newly-made proteins carry the signals. During the next 20 years, he illuminated the details of how the signals work. A typical mammalian cell contains about a billion protein molecules. Some are building blocks for the cell, while other act as enzymes, encouraging chemical reactions. The proteins are continually being destroyed and replaced, so newly-made proteins must find their way to their proper posts. Ralf Pettersson, professor of molecular biology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, dramatized the importance of the signals Blobel discovered by displaying an aerial picture of New York City. "Without an address, anybody who lands in this mash-mash of houses or streets would get lost," Pettersson said. Klas Kaerre, another Karolinska professor, said Blobel's research laid the basis for using biotechnology to produce drugs like insulin, growth hormone, and a substance used during chemotherapy that helps the production of bone marrow. Proteins are long, folded chainlike molecules made up of building blocks called amino acids. The signals Blobel found are particular sequences of amino acids found either at one end of a protein or within it. Specific signals determine whether a protein will end up in a specific compartment of a cell, lodge in the cell wall, or be exported out of the cell. Blobel's work also solved the mystery of how proteins enter the tightly sealed compartments of the cell.