SfN Member Linda Buck Awarded Nobel Prize
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SFN MEMBER LINDA BUCK AWARDED NOBEL PRIZE
WASHINGTON, DC, October 5 — Society for Neuroscience member Linda Buck, PhD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Richard Axel, MD, also of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Columbia University, were awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The prize, “for discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system,” was announced October 4 by the Nobel Assembly at The Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
Smell has long been considered the most enigmatic of senses because the principles and mechanisms involved in identifying and remembering thousands of different odors were largely unknown. Axel and Buck discovered a large gene family-comprised of 1,000 genes-responsible for an equal number of olfactory receptor sites that occupy the upper nasal epithelium and detect inhaled molecules.
Each of these receptors is specialized and can detect a limited number of related odors, the researchers found independently. Axel’s team used mice to demonstrate the role the receptors played, while Buck’s group further researched the sensitivity of the olfactory cells by examining the contents of each cell to discover which odorant receptor gene was expressed. It was then possible to demonstrate which cells were activated by a certain smell.
The receptor cells send signals to the olfactory bulb, the smell center of the brain. The information is then relayed to other parts of the brain, where information from several olfactory centers is combined, forming a pattern that can be recalled later. This process explains how one can remember the smell of cut grass in the summer long into the winter months.
“Linda Buck's work is of fundamental importance to the understanding of the mechanisms that control the relay of sensory signals from the receptor to the central nervous system,” says Mark Groudine, MD, PhD, deputy director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and director of the center's Basic Sciences Division. “What’s more, the olfactory receptors are members of a much larger family of signaling proteins known as G-protein-coupled receptors, which are often disrupted in cancer and other diseases and are the targets of a large number of drugs. Clearly, understanding how this family of receptors works is central to biomedical research in general.”
Axel and Buck worked together to publish the existence of the extensive olfactory gene family in 1991, and have since worked independently. Their subsequent parallel studies on olfaction frequently complement each other’s work.
The Society for Neuroscience, with more than 35,000 members, is the world’s largest organization of basic scientists and clinicians who study the brain and nervous system.