Research revealing the main cause of narcolepsy named as breakthrough of the year

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Two teams of scientists, one in the US and the other in Japan, have won a joint prize for their research uncovering the main causes of the chronic sleep disorder narcolepsy.

The researchers, Emmanuel Mignot of Stanford University School of Medicine and Masashi Yanagisawa of the University of Tsukuba, won the prestigious Breakthrough Prize for Life Science 2023 for discovering that narcolepsy is a neurodegenerative disease.

Running separate laboratories, the two teams of scientists pursue different research programs that have resulted in a new understanding of the genetic causes of narcolepsy.

They found that the protein orexin that regulates wakefulness – also known as hypocretin – plays a major role in the chronic sleep disorder.

Two labs revealed that narcolepsy in humans is triggered by cells attacking the immune system that makes the orexin likely to “mistake” it for a viral particle, and their findings lead to treatments that can help prevent disease. May give relief from symptoms.

Researchers say 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.

The prizes were valued at $3 million each 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 won the prize in the Life Sciences category for developing AlphaFold 2, an artificial intelligence system that rapidly and accurately predicts the 3D structure of proteins.

Earlier this year, AI uploaded the structure of 200 million proteins, almost every known protein from the tree of life, to a public database.

AI reduces the time it takes scientists to determine protein structure from months or years to hours or minutes, which has immense potential for application in drug development, synthetic biology and understanding diseases.

Researchers who discovered completely new types of interactions 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 liquid-like droplets in cells – similar to oil droplets that form in water – play a role in many processes within cells, including regulation of DNA and cell division.

Scientists say the findings have clinical applications and could lead to advances in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS.

In mathematics, Daniel A. Spielman won the prize for several discoveries in theoretical computer science and mathematics, and the Breakthrough Prize in Physics was shared by Charles H. Bennett, Gilles Brassard, David Deutsch and Peter Shor for their work in quantum information.

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