Every year, as Alfred Nobel dictated, Nobel prizes are awarded to those who have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind. This year, selection committees seem to have got it right, the Nobel science prizes all have in common celebrating discoveries that significantly advanced healthcare.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to immunologists James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo, M.D. for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation, often referred to as “immune checkpoint therapy.” Think of it like a car on an important mission that shouldn’t be slow but the manufacturer had made the car to auto-break when exceeding a certain speed, you then remove all the breaks for the car to move as fast as it can. The same was done by Allison and Honjo when they studied and discovered proteins that function as brakes on the immune system and explored different strategies of releasing the brakes and unleashing immune cells to attack.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Arthur Ashkin, a nuclear physicist who also happened to be the oldest (age ninety-six) laureate, for his invention of optical tweezers and their application to biological systems, and to electrical engineer Gérard Mourou and (his student) optical physicist Donna Strickland for their method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses. Ashkin’s invention in practice is what would allow you to levitate a ping pong ball with a hairdryer and could be used to explore how cells talk to their surroundings and vice versa, and how these interactions affect disease progression. While Mourou and Donna’s technique, called Chirped Pulse Amplification (CPA), is now routinely used in corrective laser eye surgeries.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to chemical engineer Frances H. Arnold for her work on the directed evolution of enzymes, and to biologist George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter, a genetic engineer, for the phage display of peptides and antibodies. These Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have been inspired by the power of evolution and used the principles of direct evolution by genetic change and selection to develop proteins that solve mankind’s chemical problems. Arnold’s technique of producing enzymes (catalysts) through directed evolution are now used to manufacture everything from biofuels to pharmaceutical products. Smith and Winter’s discovery of antibodies evolved using a method called phage display is used to combat auto-immune diseases and to cure some cases of metastatic cancers. Sir Winter created the protein adalimumab, now marketed as Humira by Abbott Laboratories, which is a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
Foundational research for this year’s Nobel science prizes was done over three decades ago and some only got to be used in routine medical practice, or pharmaceutical products, less than ten years ago. The Nobel science prizes don’t simply reward the invention only but its broad contribution to the evolution of humankind.
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