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Proteins Researcher Wins Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology

By Thomas H. Maugh II
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- A German-American researcher who discovered how the body puts addresses on individual proteins so that they arrive at the correct location has been awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology.

Dr. Guenter Blobel of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Rockefeller University in New York City found that each of the 1 billion protein molecules in a single cell bears a short address tag. The tag indicates that it belongs in the nucleus, the cell membrane, the cytoplasm or elsewhere, or that it should be secreted outside the cell.

With such tags, the cell runs like a well-organized factory. Without them, it would be like an earthquake-damaged warehouse with cellular components scattered uselessly about.

The discoveries have helped scientists unravel the causes of several genetic diseases, including cystic fibrosis and familial hypercholesterolemia, according to the Nobel Foundation citation. When proteins are sent to the wrong location by a defective tag, they cannot perform their customary function and can produce disease.

In familial hypercholesterolemia, for example, a very high level of cholesterol occurs in the blood because proteins that would normally remove it are not where they should be. Understanding why that happens, Blobel noted, is the first step toward developing a treatment.

The findings have also contributed to the development of a more effective use of cells as protein factories for the production of important drugs.

Blobel’s “work has led to an explosion of knowledge on the (movement) of proteins in the cell, and even on the way some kinds of drugs may be introduced into cells,” said Marvin Cassman, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Md.

Blobel, a 63-year-old native of Waltersdorf in what was then Germany but is now Poland, has worked in the United States since the early 1960s and became a U.S. citizen in the 1980s.

He said Monday that he will contribute the $960,000 prize toward the restoration of a synagogue and the famed Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Dresden, Germany, a city that was destroyed by Allied firebombing when he was 8. At a news conference, he described how, as a child, he viewed the city’s skyline just before the attacks began and later after the terrible destruction had been wrought.

“It left a tremendous impression on me,” he said.

Blobel is a founder of Friends of Dresden Inc., which has already raised more than $1 million for restoration of historic structures in the city.

Blobel was cited for work that, for the first time, explained how the internal structure of cells is maintained -- particularly with respect to proteins. Proteins are complex molecules, composed of amino acids, that are the primary building blocks for construction of a cell. They also carry out chemical reactions -- such as the construction of other proteins -- and serve as signaling agents.

Before Blobel’s work, it was unknown how newly made proteins were directed to their correct locations in the cell and how large proteins could traverse the tightly sealed membranes surrounding individual structures within the cell. About the only thing that was known, according to Dr. Donald Steiner of the University of Chicago, was that newly synthesized proteins were a little bit longer than expected.

Blobel cautioned that his discoveries do not have the immediate medical implications of some other Nobel prize winners. “It’s not a cure for AIDS, it’s not a cure for Alzheimer’s,” Blobel said. “It’s basic biological research.”