In welcoming remarks to a capacity crowd in Harvey Morse Auditorium, Kenneth Bernstein, MD, director of Experimental Pathology and professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Cedars-Sinai, said, "From the Large Hadron Collider to the Human Genome Project, a lot of science today is big. In contrast, Dr. Schekman's early work focused on the small cells in baker's yeast. The elegance of Dr. Schekman's work, along with the elegance and complexity of yeast itself, illustrates the incredible beauty of life even in a simple cell."
By studying simple cells, Schekman—a longtime professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley—uncovered the inner workings of the human body's complex cellular transport system. The Nobel Prize was awarded for his pioneering studies spotlighting the role genes and proteins play in regulating this system and the role mutated genes play in transport malfunctions that can contribute to neurological diseases and immunological disorders.
Schekman's address focused on extracellular vesicles. These are cell-derived, membrane-bound structures in biological fluids that are central to the cell-to-cell communication required to transport proteins, lipids and ribonucleic acid (RNA). They also pave the way for an array of cellular processes, including immune responses, homeostasis and coagulation.
"There's much excitement about extracellular vesicles as an emerging area in medicine," Schekman said, pointing to their potential as disease biomarkers. He additionally noted that extracellular vesicles secreted by tumor cells could "provide a novel opportunity for therapeutic intervention."
For the last several years, Schekman's lab has been studying small molecules of RNA called microRNAs that regulate gene activity. A select subset of microRNAs become cargo carried by extracellular vesicles, suggesting there is a specific sorting mechanism responsible for extracellular vesicles acquiring microRNAs.
Schekman's team has been working to identify the molecular players driving this packaging process. This information could provide insight into the impact microRNAs may have on gene expression when released into recipient cells. "This will occupy my lab for many years," Schekman said.
The Nobel laureate concluded his lecture by announcing that his professional life is changing for very personal reasons. In September 2017, his wife of 44 years died after battling Parkinson's disease for more than two decades. Schekman was approached last year by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Brin—who has a family history of Parkinson's disease —asked Schekman to chair the advisory council of Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s, an organization founded and funded by the Sergey Brin Family Foundation. Schekman accepted.