Neuroscientist Südhof wins prestigious Kavli Prize


Thomas Südhof, MD, a Stanford neuroscientist renowned for his investigations into how nerve cells in the brain communicate, has been named a recipient of the 2010 Kavli Prize, which the New York Times calls “one of the richest prizes in science.” Südhof will share one of three $1-million awards given for achievements in neuroscience, nanoscience and astrophysics.

This marks only the second time Kavli winners have been chosen since the biennial prize was launched in 2008. Funding for the awards comes from the Oxnard, Calif.-based Kavli Foundation, established in 2000 by Fred Kavli, a Norwegian-born physicist, entrepreneur and philanthropist. Winners are picked by the Norwegian Academy of Science Letters and Norway’s Ministry of Education and Research in partnership with the Kavli Foundation, after consultation with leading scientists in each field.

Südhof, a professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, will split the $1 million proceeds with two other neuroscientists: Richard Scheller, who held Stanford faculty positions in the 1980s and is now a research executive at the biotechnology company Genentech; and James Rothman of Yale University.

Sudhof, who was at the Dallas airport waiting for a flight home when reached for an interview, said that he found out about the award only because people were sending him congratulatory e-mails. “This is a great honor, and a totally unexpected one,” he said.

In the early 1990s Südhof, who is also the Avram Goldstein Professor in the School of Medicine, made important advances in revealing the molecular basis of the transfer of signals between nerve cells in the brain. Nerve cells were already known to contain tiny bubble-like structures called vesicles, which release specialized chemicals into synapses: narrow gaps separating one nerve cell from the next. This release causes a signal being transmitted along one nerve cell to jump the gap and propagate down the next nerve cell. Südhof puzzled out which genes encode the proteins that control vesicles’ release of the chemicals they contain. In particular, he discovered a protein that acted as an on/off switch for that release.

Sudhof’s current research continues to focus on the molecular means by which nerve cells communicate across synapses — a process that underpins all thought, emotion, perception and action. In recent years he has directed a good deal of his attention to the study of cognitive disorders including autism, schizophrenia, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Asked what he planned to do with his unanticipated bonanza — about $200,000 after taxes — Südhof laughed and replied, “I have a small child, just turning 1 year old. I think she will eat up the money very quickly.”

Doug Cody/Bay Area Event Photography

Thomas Sudhof is a recipient of a 2010 Kavli Prize, and will share in the $1 million prize.