Nobel Laureate Südhof describes two decades of work at UTSW

By Deborah Wormser

Nobel laureate Dr. Thomas C. Südhof

Nobel laureate Dr. Thomas C. Südhof returned to campus in March for a celebration and lecture in which he described the pioneering work he did at UT Southwestern Medical Center that led to him receiving the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Dr. James E. Rothman and Dr. Randy W. Sheckman “for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.”

Dr. Südhof is the former Chairman of Neuroscience at UT Southwestern, and he was at UT Southwestern for 25 years before leaving for Stanford University in 2008. He remains an Adjunct Professor of Neuroscience at UT Southwestern.

“Coming back here evokes not only wonderful memories, but also makes me feel at home,” he said. “I am very grateful to everyone I worked with over the years while I was here. It’s been almost like a family – a community of friends and scholars who really made possible what I have done.”

UT Southwestern President Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky said, “A Nobel Prize is the pinnacle of recognition in science worldwide. It is fitting that this prize acknowledges the important contributions of Dr. Südhof, which took place on this campus while he was a full-time member of our faculty. Dr. Südhof’s studies of synaptic transmission have led to a better understanding of brain function under normal as well as pathologic conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.” Synaptic transmission is the process by which neurons communicate with each other via chemical signals (called neurotransmitters) passed through the spaces, or synapses, between them.

Dr. Südhof began his UT Southwestern career in 1983 as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Brown, Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease, and Dr. Joseph Goldstein, Chairman of Molecular Genetics, who shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the underlying mechanisms of cholesterol metabolism.

In introducing Dr. Südhof, Dr. Goldstein noted that his postdoc arrived in Dallas on a sweltering July day and proceeded to secure a place to live, acquire his driver’s license, buy a used car (that lacked air conditioning), and set to work in the lab – all within a three-day span.

Once settled, Dr. Südhof worked on cholesterol metabolism investigations in the Goldstein-Brown lab before joining the UT Southwestern faculty as an Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics, as well as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and turning his attention to neurotransmission. Dr. Südhof was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2002 and to the Institute of Medicine in 2007.

Addressing a standing-room-only audience in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium, Dr. Südhof acknowledged the supportive environment he encountered throughout UT Southwestern, including the highest levels of administration, his faculty colleagues, postdoctoral researchers, and the graduate students who worked alongside him in the lab.

“I am very grateful not only to Mike and Joe for their mentorship and support over all those years, but also to the leadership of UT Southwestern,” he said. “As a place to do science, UT Southwestern is unique.”

In his lecture, Dr. Südhof described neural transmission as a three-step process that occurs within 1 to 5 milliseconds (thousandths of a second). He was particularly interested in the second step, which lasts a small fraction of that time.

“When I started my laboratory at UT Southwestern in 1986, neurotransmitter release fascinated me because of its importance, its inexplicable speed, and its precision. But at that point not a single synaptic component had been molecularly characterized,” he recalled. “Now, 25 years later, a molecular framework that plausibly explains neurotransmitter release in molecular terms has emerged.”

He described his more than two decades of research as a quest for answers to a series of fascinating questions. The answers to those questions began to create a storyline of how neural transmission might work.

Dr. Südhof specifically credited the structural biology and biophysical insights of UT Southwestern’s Dr. Jose Rizo-Rey, with whom he has collaborated for the past 20 years. Dr. Rizo-Rey is a Professor of Biophysics, Biochemistry, and Pharmacology.

The event included the presentation of a special proclamation to honor Dr. Südhof’s work, signed by the other five UT Southwestern Nobel laureates: Drs. Brown and Goldstein (1985), Dr. Johann Deisenhofer (1988), Dr. Alfred G. Gilman (1994) and Dr. Bruce A. Beutler (2011).

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  • Dr. Beutler holds the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research, in Honor of Laverne and Raymond Willie Sr.
  • Dr. Brown holds the W.A. (Monty) Moncrief Distinguished Chair in Cholesterol and Arteriosclerosis Research and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine. 
  • Dr. Deisenhofer holds the Virginia and Edward Linthicum Distinguished Chair in Biomolecular Science.
  • Dr. Goldstein holds the Julie and Louis A. Beecherl Jr. Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Research and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine.
  • Dr. Podolsky holds the Philip O'Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science. 
  • Dr. Rizo-Rey holds the Virginia Lazenby O'Hara Chair in Biochemistry.
  • Dr. Südhof held the Gill Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience Research and the Loyd B. Sands Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience, as well as directed the C. Vincent Prothro Center for Research in Basic Neuroscience and the Gill Center for Research on Brain Cell Communication.

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