Meet Thomas Südhof, M.D.

Posted: Jan. 28, 2014

When Dr. Thomas Südhof first learned he had won the Nobel Prize last October, he could not have been more surprised. “Are you serious?” were the first words out of his mouth.  

When someone is awarded the Nobel Prize, he or she is called first at home with the news, and then again soon afterward. The second call is recorded so winners have time to prepare what they want to say. But Dr. Südhof never received the first call. So when he first heard the good news, he was caught completely off guard. “I was driving in the middle of Spain on my way to a conference and I was a little lost,” he admits. “At first I was a little skeptical when I got the call,” Südhof says, but he quickly realized the truth. “I was utterly surprised and, needless to say, delighted.” Later he said, “Every scientist dreams of this. It’s quite amazing.” Dr. Südhof was awarded the prize for his work in synaptic transmission together with Randy Schekman, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, and James E. Rothman, Ph.D., of Yale University.


Early days

Südhof was born in Göttingen, Germany, in 1955. He was the second of four children, with an older sister and two younger brothers. As a child he had many different interests, including music. “My bassoon teacher, Herbert Tauscher, taught me that the only way to do something right is to practice and listen for hours and hours. I believe that my training in classical music imbued me with a sense of focus and hard work that is a prerequisite for creativity,” says Dr. Südhof.

He graduated from the Hannover Waldorf School in 1975 and went on to medical school at the RWTH Aachen University, Harvard University and then the University of Göttingen. “I became interested in science as a serious endeavor when I was in medical school,” explains Südhof. “I discovered how helpless we are as physicians in treating people because we don’t actually understand how diseases arise. The brain is a very important organ and we really know very little about how it works. Brain diseases may not always be life threatening, but the most prevalent—schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s—impose an enormous burden on the population.”

Südhof obtained a medical degree in 1982. He became familiar with neuroscience when he performed research for his doctoral degree at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. His thesis dealt with the release of hormones from adrenal cells, a model of neurotransmitter release. To deepen his knowledge of biochemistry and molecular biology, Dr. Südhof moved to the United States in 1983, where he began postdoctoral training in the department of molecular genetics at the University of Texas. There, Dr. Südhof worked under Michael Brown, M.D., and Joseph Goldstein, M.D., to describe the role of the LDL receptor in cholesterol metabolism, for which Brown and Goldstein were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1985. Dr. Südhof completed his training in 1986 and became an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He then started his own laboratory at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where he focused on the presynaptic neuron for 25 years.

Dr. Südhof’s work is unique because, prior to his discoveries, the majority of neuroscience research had focused on the postsynaptic neuron and its role in learning and memory. But Dr. Südhof revealed the role of presynaptic neurons in neuropsychiatric illnesses and helped to advance knowledge of mechanisms behind such poorly understood diseases and conditions as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and autism.

In 2008, Dr. Südhof moved to Stanford University, where he serves as the Avram Goldstein Professor in the School of Medicine as well as a professor of molecular and cellular physiology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and neurology and neurological sciences. As a neuroscientist, he continues to “work on how the brain works,” he says. “It’s quite an amazing organ with billions of billions of nerve cells that constantly talk to each other. We have been trying to shed light on how the cells send information to each other at the synapse, which is like a little nano computer.” And his contributions have been significant.


Cure Alzheimer’s Fund

Dr. Südhof joined the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund (CAF) Research Consortium in July 2010 and was named to CAF’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) in 2013. The role of the SAB is to ensure the scientific integrity of proposals submitted for funding and advise the board of directors about the broad directions of research that will lead most effectively to controlling and ending the disease. While Dr. Südhof doesn’t focus on Alzheimer’s disease specifically, nor has he received funding from CAF to date, his work on the brain is highly relevant.

“My personal view,” explains Südhof, “is although it’s absolutely crucial to get to a cure, and I fully support that goal, we need a better understanding of the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease. We live in a time when science is in peril. More and more funds are devoted toward large projects that in the end are not that productive. There needs to be balance with smaller projects that support individual laboratories, like mine. My hope is that Cure Alzheimer’s Fund will gain a better understanding of how Alzheimer’s develops. We have a lot of genes and risk factors, but we don’t know how they conspire to cause the disease.”


Personal life

Dr. Südhof is married and has two small children, ages 4 and 3. He enjoys spending time with his family when he’s not working. “My wife is a full-time professor, so we try to share as much of the work as we can. She is a neuroscientist, like me, and she works on different aspects of synaptic transmission.” They met at a conference, but they’ve never actually worked together. “Before we had children we used to go to movies, museums, concerts and travel, but now more than 80 percent of my free time is spent taking care of my family,” explains Dr. Südhof. Despite how busy he is, Dr. Südhof is well-known for his productivity. He says, “I cannot tell you how much I enjoy what I do. I will always consider it an enormous privilege to be a scientist.”