2017 Nobel Prize Winner Discusses Breakthrough Research

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Biologist Michael W. Young, PhD, who, together with fellow researchers Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael Rosbash, was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine, was the keynote speaker today at NYU Winthrop Hospital’s Neonatology 25th Anniversary Jubilee Conference. Young’s research, over the course of 40 years, led to the discovery of genes that help regulate what is called the biological clock. Those discoveries help to explain how other multicellular organisms—plants, animals and humans—adapt their biological rhythms to be synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.

In his presentation, Young made stunning revelations about the human biological clock that have profound implications for understanding human sleep disorders, the mechanisms of jet lag and depressive disorders.

“We don’t have [biological] clocks only in our brains,” said Young. “These clocks are in almost every tissue in our body; our liver, lungs, even our skin.”

To illustrate this point, Young pointed to jet lag, which involves a “desynchronization” of the biological clock, also known as the circadian clock. A desynchronization of that clock in humans is exacerbated because, “Tissues move to new time zones at different rates.” So while taking an Ambien on a plane may help ease jet lag by helping put a traveler’s brain to sleep, it does not address other tissues and organs in the body that may also suffer the fatigue of desynchronization.

Young, a professor at New York City-based Rockefeller University, together with his fellow Nobel Laureates, isolated several genes that control the normal daily biological clock of the fruit fly and showed how these genes cause certain proteins to accumulate during the night and then degrade during the day when exposed to sunlight.

He also pointed to Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder (DSPD), or “night-owl disorder,” which is when a person functions best late at night but then may be lethargic and drowsy during the day. DSPD is among the most common sleep disorders in the U.S., with approximately five percent of the population affected.

The most important finding regarding the night-owl disorder, however, was a gene mutation that was identified as a predictor of DSPD. The mutation was found in one percent of all of the world’s population, with the mutation most prevalent in Europeans of non-Finnish descent.

More than 250 physicians, neonatal intensive-care unit staff, and researchers attended the conference.

“This type of research often leads to discoveries that no one imagined, so it’s vitally important that the path of research be open to all possibilities,” said Young. “We pursue clues in the most obscure of areas and follow them where they lead. The same is most assuredly true for research in neonatology.”

—Submitted by NYU Winthrop Hospital

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