December 12, 2017

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Nobel Prize: Circadian rhythm field poised for medical advances

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DALLAS, Dec. 7, 2017 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Circadian rhythms affect some of the most crucial functions in the human body, from sleep and mental health to metabolism and defending against deadly diseases such as cancer.

After decades of research that helped scientists understand these vast biological functions, the field of circadian rhythms is being recognized with a Nobel Prize this year for the discovery of a fruit fly gene controlling the biological clock.

But a series of more recent advancements – notably the first circadian gene in mammals discovered by UT Southwestern’s Dr. Joseph S. Takahashi – have elevated the research beyond flies and put scientists in position to unlock many of the mysteries of human health and behavior.

Researchers now have the knowledge and technology to test whether adjusting circadian rhythms may treat or prevent cancer. They can look into whether depression or obesity might be solved through altering genes controlling the biological clock.

As the Nobel Prize ceremony is held this month in Stockholm, Dr. Takahashi marvels at how far the field has come and the potential to translate its findings into life-saving medical breakthroughs.

Much of that success will stem from a cascade of findings related to the CLOCK gene, the first mammalian gene controlling circadian rhythms that Dr. Takahashi discovered and cloned in the 1990s. Subsequent research has established CLOCK as a prominent regulator of other biological clock genes and a key target to better understand the primary underpinnings of human nature.

“It has been rewarding to see how the CLOCK gene pathway impacts so many areas of biological function and their impact on biomedicine,” said Dr. Takahashi, Chairman of Neuroscience at UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute. “Our field is just beginning to understand the significance of CLOCK and its application to cancer, mental health, and other conditions.”

From flies to mammals

In the 1970s, Drs. Seymour Benzer and Ronald Konopka discovered through genetic screening fruit fly mutants with abnormal hatching rhythms.

Three other scientists won this year’s Nobel Prize for ultimately cloning and sequencing the gene (period) that controlled the flies’ rhythms.

A decade later, Dr. Takahashi’s cloning of CLOCK bridged a gap between the insect discoveries and understanding that circadian rhythms play a vital role in more complex organisms as well. New research indicates it may even have links to the evolution of the human brain. 

“Dr. Takahashi’s discovery was absolutely fundamental and is held in the highest regard,” said Nobel Laureate Dr. Michael S. Brown, who along with UT Southwestern colleague Dr. Joseph Goldstein won the Nobel in 1985 for a

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