Two teams of scientists, one in the United States and the other in Japan, won a joint award for their research that uncovered the main causes of chronic sleep disorder narcolepsy.
The researchers, Emmanuel Mignot of Stanford University School of Medicine and Masashi Yanagisawa of Tsukuba University, won the prestigious Breakthrough Prize for Life Science 2023 for discovering that narcolepsy is a neurodegenerative disease.
Gestindo separate laboratories, the two led teams of scientists pursuing different research programs that converged on a new understanding of the genetic causes of narcolepsy.
They found that the waking-regulating protein orexin, also called hypocretin, plays an important role in chronic sleep disturbance.
The two labs revealed that narcolepsy is triggered in humans by the immune system attacking orexin-producing cells likely “mistaking” it for a viral particle, and their findings have led to treatments that could alleviate the symptoms of the disease.
The award-winning studies have also shed light on a central mechanism behind sleep and wakefulness and have enabled the design of sleep-inducing drugs, say the researchers.
The awards were each worth $ 3 million and its sponsors included philanthropists Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Julia and Yuri Milner, and Anne Wojcicki.
Google’s Deepmind researchers Demis Hassabis and John Jumper also won the prize in the Life Sciences category for developing the AlphaFold 2 artificial intelligence system that quickly and accurately predicts the 3D structure of proteins.
Earlier this year, the AI uploaded the structures of 200 million proteins, which are nearly all known tree of life proteins, to a public database.
AI reduces the time it takes scientists to determine protein structure from months or years to hours or minutes, placing immense potential for application in drug development, synthetic biology and disease understanding.
Researchers who discovered an entirely new type of interaction in cells between proteins and other biomolecules in the absence of membranes were also awarded the Breakthrough Award in the Life Sciences category.
They found that membrane-free liquid-like droplets in cells – similar to oil droplets that form in water – play a role in numerous processes within cells, including DNA regulation and cell division.
The findings have clinical applications and could lead to advances in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, the scientists say.
In Mathematics, Daniel A Spielman won the award for multiple breakthroughs in theoretical computer science and mathematics, and in Physics the Breakthrough Award was shared by Charles H Bennett, Gilles Brassard, David Deutsch and Peter Shor for their work in information quantum.