It isn’t often in the course of an institution’s history that a single year stands out so clearly, but such was the 1985—1986 academic year for UT Southwestern.

On October 14, 1985, it was announced that Drs. Joseph L. Goldstein and Michael S. Brown had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the regulation of cholesterol metabolism.”

Never before had a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine been awarded for
research done exclusively within the state of Texas. Brown and Goldstein found that “human cells have low-density lipoprotein (LDL) receptors that remove cholesterol from the blood” and that when LDL receptors are not present in sufficient numbers, individuals become at risk for cholesterol related diseases.

It was a pioneering discovery that would lead to the development of statins, which help regulate cholesterol, improve the quality of life for millions of people, and save lives.

The Nobel Prize, wrote Harriet Zuckerman in her book Scientific Elite, is the “gold standard by which all other scientific awards are judged…[the] universal and instantly understood metaphor of supreme achievement.”

When Brown and Goldstein received their Nobel awards in Stockholm on December 10, 1985, it was a triumph not only for their landmark research into cholesterol metabolism but for UT Southwestern and the Dallas community, which had nurtured their talent, supported their work and maintained their loyalty in the face of highly attractive offers from other prestigious institutions.

In scientific circles, the question was asked: What was it about UT Southwestern that encouraged the growth and development of these two assistant professors?

The answer is found in the DNA that makes up the medical school: an insistence from Dr. Cary when the school was founded — that medical and scientific excellence be intertwined with a unique culture of collaboration.

I don’t believe that the work that Joe and I have done could have been done at any other institution.

Michael S. Brown, M.D., Nobel Laureate

Brown and Goldstein did more than help inspire the commercial development of a new category of lifesaving drugs — they electrified the imaginations of medical researchers around the world.

The scientific foundation of their work was the discovery that cells have surface receptors that trap cholesterol-carrying molecules, which are then internalized for cellular use.

When Brown and Goldstein started out, the existence of cell receptors was known — but what those receptors did, how they worked or how common they were was unknown.

Through their discoveries, [Dr. Brown and Dr. Goldstein] revolutionized our knowledge about the regulation of cholesterol metabolism and the treatment of diseases caused by abnormally elevated cholesterol levels in the blood.

The Nobel Committee, Stockholm

The discovery that receptors played a vital role in the regulation of cholesterol in the bloodstream was a quantum scientific leap. Suddenly, it seemed possible that receptors might be unwitting doormen allowing disease to enter the cell — a kind of microscopic Trojan horse. It was an idea that could be applied to many metabolic processes, and it illuminated a new realm of discovery at life’s most basic level.