Michael Rosbach is one of the Americans awarded this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering the molecular mechanisms that control humans' circadian rhythm.

Credit: Bill Sikes/AP

Brandeis University Scientist Wins Nobel Prize In Medicine

October 3, 2017

Barbara Howard: Well Ranier Weiss is not the only local researcher to be awarded a Nobel Prize this week. Yesterday, it was Brandeis University's Michael Rosbash and Jeffrey Hall taking a bow. They, along with their research partner, Michael Young of Rockefeller University in New York, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their research into circadian rhythms — the body's internal clock. Dr. Rosbash is on the line. Thanks for joining us.

Rosbash: My pleasure.

Howard: Now you got the news, I'm told, at about 5:00 yesterday morning. What was it like to wake up to something like that?

Rosbash: 5:10 to be precise. It was shocking, because when the phone rings at that time in the morning, which happens maybe once every decade, it usually means a death in the family or something awful. So that was my first thought. And then when I picked up the phone, a gentleman with a Swedish accent introduced himself and told me what it was about, and it took my breath away — but in a slightly different, more positive manner.

Howard: Did you believe it?

Rosbash: I did believe it, because I was aware that this was the morning, and it did quickly go through my mind whether it was a prank. But everybody is a little older now, and so they would worry about giving a heart attack to the recipient or something like that. So we're a bit more of a mature crowd, so I figured it wasn't a prank.

Howard: Now you were studying, of course, circadian rhythms, that's what you won the Nobel for. Can you put in layman's terms the significance of the research you've been doing?

Rosbash: This research was done in fruit flies, and we were trying to understand the nature of the clock in fruit flies. And it turned out that what we discovered was a feedback loop mechanism whereby a very important protein inhibited its own production, and when, then, that protein decayed away, then the inhibition decayed away and the whole process started over again, and it took 24 hours to go around the cycle. And we were very fortunate for two reasons: first of all, it turned out that the same proteins and the same mechanism works in mammals, including in humans. We didn't discover that. It just so happened that other people working at the time were able to take our findings and apply them to humans, and lo and behold, it's exactly the same system — meaning of course, that it existed in a common ancestor of humans and fruit flies. And secondly, it turns out that this clock turns out to govern more than half of the gene expression in all tissues in all animals including humans and mice and so forth so. So in fact, the clock has its fingers in everything from libido to blood pressure.

Howard: And all living things from fruit flies to people, it sounds like?

Rosbash: All living things. Exactly, exactly.

Howard: Well your research — decades studying circadian rhythms — it was at times publicly mocked by other researchers. What was that like?

Rosbash: I didn't take that too personally, and also, it became pretty clear pretty early on that we were on to something that was interesting and important, so I don't think that phase lasted very long. As I said yesterday in a press conference here at Brandeis, you know, scientists really work like a potter or like — it's a craft. And so nobody is in this for — nobody should be in this for end game. If things work out, it's really extra.

Howard: Well, you know, when you were speaking with the media, you were very specific in thanking your children. You mentioned that your work occasionally got in the way of your family life. Talk about that.

Rosbash: Most people who do this, who do this job, and doing research and running a lab in a significant way are pretty obsessive. The Provost yesterday here told me that she refers to this as nerding out. So when your kids are talking to you and sometimes they can see this vacant look in your eye and you have started to daydream and think about an experiment when you, of course, you should be focused on the moment, which is really paying attention to what they have to say. Fortunately, they're good, resilient kids and they both drag me back to reality — ‘Dad. Pay attention. I'm talking to you' — and forgive me for those weak moments.

Howard: Well they're seeing the big payoff now, I would think.

Rosbash: They saw the payoff before, I was pretty engaged dad.

Howard: Well, you're 73 now and this, of course, is a crowning achievement. Do you feel like you still have more work to do, or are you ready to pass the baton to others in the field?

Rosbash: Many of our students and post-docs have run their own labs now. On the one hand, we already have passed the baton off and Jeff is retired, and I think if I if I weren't still so generously supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, I might well consider retiring myself. That support continues and will for a while yet, and so I think as long as that persists, I will continue. I'm still engaged and interested and I think I'll continue for a while yet.

Howard: OK, well thank you for joining us, Dr. Rosbash.

Rosbash: You're more than welcome. My pleasure.

Howard: That's Dr. Michael Rosebash of Brandeis University. He and his Brandeis colleague Jeffrey Hall and the research partner Michael Young of Rockefeller University in New York won the Nobel Prize in medicine yesterday for their work studying circadian rhythms.

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