Year & Category
1991 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (jointly with Bert Sakmann)
"For their discoveries concerning the function of single ion channels in cells"
At the time of the award he worked at
Max-Planck-Institut für Biophysikalische Chemie, Göttingen, Federal Republic of Germany
About his research
A groundbreaking technique
Cells are fundamental units of human life. The fact that they communicate through minuscule ion channels and thereby control almost every bodily response was first proven by Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann using the patch clamp technique they developed in 1976. They achieved this breakthrough at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, where Erwin Neher is still active today as head of an emeritus group. During their collaboration at the institute Neher’s knowledge of amplifier technology played a significant role. Neher and Sakmann took up the challenge of being the first to study an individual ion channel and its electrical signals. An electrical resistance of roughly one gigohm was required to isolate a single channel. Neher and Sakmann succeeded in applying this enormous resistance to an area of a cell membrane using a measuring pipette "clamped" to the surface by suction.
After making numerous improvements to their basic design – for example, through the development of special amplifier systems – they were able to represent the time and amplitude of the ion currents for the first time. The method that Neher and Sakmann developed eventually gained worldwide acceptance. The technique makes it possible to secure important insights into the role that hyper- and hypo-function of ion channels play in the development of diseases.