Written by Krista Conger
Levitt, 66, is the second faculty member of Stanford's medical school to win a Nobel Prize this week. Thomas Südhof, MD, professor of molecular and cellular physiology, won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 7.
Levitt, who holds U.S., British and Israeli citizenship, shares the $1.2 million prize with Martin Karplus, PhD, of the University of Strasbourg in France and Harvard University, and Arieh Warshel, PhD, of the University of Southern California, "for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems."
Levitt's work focuses on theoretical, computer-aided analysis of the protein, DNA and RNA molecules responsible for life at it most fundamental level. Delineating the precise molecular structures of biological molecules is a necessary first step in understanding how they work and in designing drugs to alter their function.
"Like everyone else, one is surprised," said Levitt of the early morning call. "Now I just hope to get through the day and make sure that, in the end, my life doesn't change very much. Because I really have a wonderful life.
"My phone never rings," he added. "Everyone sends me texts and email. So when the phone first rang, I was sure it was a wrong number. When it rang a second time, I picked it up. I immediately heard a Swedish accent and got very excited. It was like having five double espressos."
Levitt and Warshel worked together in the 1970s in the laboratory of Shneior Lifson at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. "We had the idea about doing computer calculations on the large molecules that make life possible," said Levitt, who said he was relieved to hear whom he shares the prize with.
"One would hate to win the prize if people who also deserved it didn't get it," said Levitt. "So I was very pleased to hear their names."
Levitt joined the Department of Structural Biologyat Stanford in 1987. He is also a member of Bio-X, a Stanford initiative that unites experts in biology, medicine, chemistry, physics and engineering.
"I am delighted that Michael Levitt has been recognized with this prize," said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. "The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is perfectly fitting for Mike's contributions to chemistry and medicine and a clear example of the value of basic theoretical research to practical medicine. Today we take computer modeling in biology for granted, but Dr. Levitt was one of its pioneers, using it to predict the shapes of important biological molecules. Thanks to his agile mind, not to mention his boundless energy, curiosity and collegiality, he effortlessly crosses the disciplines of computer science, physics and biology to carry out this foundational work in computational biology. He himself is a perfect model of the type of interdisciplinary scientist that makes Stanford Medicine great."
Levitt's early work pioneered computational structural biology, which helped to predict molecular structures, compute structural changes, refine experimental structure, model enzyme catalysis and classify protein structures. His basic research set the stage of most subsequent work in the rapidly growing field. It also led to practical methods for antibody humanization that are key for modern anticancer therapy, including Avastin.
"Molecules work because of their structure," Levitt said. "And cells worked because of where things are placed inside. The only way to interfere is to first learn their three-dimensional structure. If you wanted to change a city, but had no idea of where the buildings are, you would have no idea where to start."
Levitt credits his family, particularly his wife, Rina, an artist, for supporting him. "I am a very passionate scientist, but passionate scientists often make very bad husbands," he said. He and his wife have three sons and three grandchildren.
Levitt was born in 1947 in Pretoria, South Africa, and was raised there until he went to London to attend King's College to obtain a degree in physics. He received his PhD from Cambridge University in 1972 and was a postdoctoral scholar at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Israel, from 1972 to 1974. His computer at the institute, a custom-built machine, cost $10 million to build.
"I was in my 20s. Someone handed me a programming manual and asked me to write a program," said Levitt, adding that he feels the computer industry deserves a large part of the credit for the work he's been able to accomplish throughout his career.
"Computers and biology go together. Biology is very complicated, and computers are such wonderful, powerful tools. And they just keep getting more and more powerful. Whereas computers now have memory capacities measured in gigabytes, the memory of my first machine was less than one megabyte. Nothing is that slow. It was thousands of times less than the cheapest machines today."
One of the first things Levitt did after learning of the award was to update the status on his Facebook page. "That was the most important thing," he joked. He also called his mother, Gertrude, 98, who lives in London. "She is very happy," said Levitt. "I am hoping she can come to Stockholm with me."
--Stanford News Service