Two teams of researchers, one in the US and the other in Japan, have won a joint prize for their research that uncovers the main causes of the chronic sleep disorder narcolepsy.
The researchers, Emmanuel Mignot from Stanford University School of Medicine and Masashi Yanagisawa from the University of Tsukuba, won the prestigious Breakthrough Prize for Life Science 2023 for discovering that narcolepsy is a neurodegenerative disease.
Operating separate laboratories, they led two teams of researchers pursuing different research programs that converged on a new understanding of the genetic causes of narcolepsy.
They found that the protein orexin that regulates wakefulness – also called hypocretin – plays a major role in the chronic sleep disorder.
The two labs revealed that narcolepsy in humans is triggered by the immune system attacking orexin-producing cells that likely “mistaken” it for a viral particle, and their findings have led to treatments that could alleviate the symptoms of the disease.
The award-winning studies also shed light on a central mechanism behind sleep and wakefulness, and have enabled the design of sleep-inducing drugs, say researchers.
The prizes were each worth $3 million and 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 award 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, AI uploaded the structures of 200 million proteins, which are almost all known proteins from the entire tree of life, to a public database.
AI is reducing the time it takes scientists to determine protein structure from months or years to hours or minutes, which presents huge potential for use in drug development, synthetic biology and to understand diseases.
Researchers who discovered a completely new type of interaction in cells between proteins and other biomolecules in the absence of membranes were also awarded the breakthrough prize in the Life Sciences category.
They found that membraneless fluid-like droplets in cells – similar to oil droplets that form in water – play a role in a number of processes in cells, including regulation of DNA and cell division.
The findings have clinical applications and could lead to advances in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, researchers say.
In mathematics, Daniel A Spielman won the prize for several discoveries in theoretical computer science and mathematics, and in physics the Breakthrough prize was shared by Charles H Bennett, Gilles Brassard, David Deutsch and Peter Shor for their work on quantum information.