Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

3 Americans Win Nobel In Medicine For Circadian Rhythm Research


The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded today to three American scientists for their discoveries about how our internal clocks work. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the details.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Scientists had long known that all living things have an internal clock, a clock that Thomas Perlmann of the Nobel committee says we couldn't live without.


THOMAS PERLMANN: Ever since the emergence of life on Earth, evolving life forms had to adapt to the rotation of our planet. This ability to prepare for the regular daily fluctuations is crucial for all life forms.

STEIN: But how this clock works was a huge mystery until Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash at Brandeis University in Boston and Michael Young at the Rockefeller University in New York figured it out.


PERLMANN: This year's Nobel laureates solved the mystery of how an inner clock in most of our cells in our bodies can anticipate daily fluctuations between night and day to optimize our behavior and physiology.

STEIN: The scientists conducted a series of experiments in the 1980s and 1990s that identified the genes that make the proteins that work like the cogs and wheels in an old-fashioned mechanical clock.


PERLMANN: Now the scientists could begin to disentangle the cellular wheels and cogs of a clock machinery.

STEIN: The genes have names like period, timeless and double time. They work together to run the clock that regulates everything in our bodies when we're awake, asleep, when hormones rise and fall.


PERLMANN: Since the paradigm-shifting discoveries by Hall, Rosbash and Young, circadian biology has developed into a highly dynamic research field with vast implications for our health and well-being.

STEIN: That helps explain all sorts of things, like jetlag, sleep disorders.


PERLMANN: Studies have also indicated that chronic misalignment between our lifestyles and the clock is associated with increased risk for various diseases.

STEIN: Like why nightshift workers may be at increased risk for cancer. I reached one of the winners, Michael Rosbash, shortly after he got the call this morning.

I'm just calling to see what your reaction is to this announcement.

MICHAEL ROSBASH: Shock and disbelief. What can I say? I'm still reeling a bit. It hasn't quite hit me yet.

STEIN: In fact, when the call from Stockholm woke him up, Rosbash didn't believe it.

ROSBASH: When the phone rang, I assumed it was a death in the family. That's often why the phone rings at that ungodly hour. Then it occurred to me it was a prank by one of my old-time friends, but it only took 10 seconds or so before I realized that it's probably the real McCoy. And then my wife had to remind me to breathe because I was holding my breath as you might through a tense moment in a movie or something.

STEIN: Rosbash hopes the discoveries will eventually lead to new ways to treat many diseases and maybe even the effects of aging. The winners will split the $1 million prize in December. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.