Nobel’s legacy and the “other” prizes

A look at this year’s winners—and the structure of the science prize categories

2018 Nobel Prizes

Ilustrations: Niklas Elmehed / © Nobel Media AB 2018
From left to right: James P. Allison and Tasuke Honjo, winners of the prize for Medicine; Frances H. Arnold, George P. Smith, and Sir Gregory P. Winter, winners of the prize for Chemistry.

John Erik Stacy
The Norwegian American

The legacy of Alfred Nobel is best known for the Peace Prize awarded in Oslo every year. But Nobel also recognized other important human achievements. In his will, he established prizes not only for Peace but also for achievements in Literature, Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine. These prizes are widely regarded as the most prestigious honors awarded in their respective fields.

This year, the prizes for Medicine and Chemistry highlight breakthroughs in cell and molecular biology. One prize recognizes “immunotherapy” as an approach to cancer treatment, while the other acknowledges the breakthrough methods for “evolving” proteins in a test tube. In both cases, the science represented by these breakthroughs has led to drugs that are now in common use.

The prize for Medicine (formally, the prize for “Physiology or Medicine”) was shared by James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo. These two scientists were pioneers in understanding that certain white blood cells (T-cells) naturally tend to attack and destroy cancer cells. Their prizeworthy contribution was in discovering how drugs could be designed that help T-cells attack cancer cells. This was the groundwork for the development of drugs like Yervoy and Keytruda, now mainstays in cancer treatment. Immunotherapy is credited with successful treatment of many cancer cases once deemed hopeless, for example that of former president Jimmy Carter. There are other promising angles on immunotherapy now in laboratory pipelines at universities and biopharmaceutical companies. No doubt, these ongoing efforts to develop effective treatments for cancer are encouraged by the recognition given in this prize.

The Chemistry prize was shared in a three-way split by Frances H. Arnold, George P. Smith, and Sir Gregory P. Winter. The work of these scientists has resulted in methods that have been powerfully applied in drug discovery. At the heart of these methods is the ability to select molecular types from a large pool of variants. Much as breeders choose an individual rose to start a new line of roses (and then choose within the descendants of this rose and so on until the line breeds true) these scientists have found ways to exploit the property of molecular affinities (how well molecules stick together) to select and “evolve” proteins.

Smith pioneered this method using the tools of gene technology in a biological system that involves bacteria and their parasitic (bacteriophage) partners to “display” proteins for selection. Winter applied this system to the protein sequences of the human immune system by creating “libraries” of human antibody genes. Arnold has taken the concept a step further in creating a system that efficiently generates protein variants that form a population on which selection can act. These methods have yielded drugs such as Humira (to treat rheumatoid arthritis and more), Benlysta (to treat lupus), ABthrax (to treat anthrax toxicity), and more.

Common to all the scientists receiving these awards is a deep understanding of biology and an ability to synthesize and leverage biological concepts. If Nobel were alive today, perhaps he would appreciate the way biology bridges disciplines, including chemistry and logic, to illuminate phenomena such as acquired immunity and molecular evolution through iterative selection.

Although the discoveries made by these scientists represent fundamental advancements, the historical actions of the committees within the Nobel Foundation, suggest an emphasis on applied sciences. This favoring of “useful arts” within the sciences seems also to be reflected in the choice of categories. Disciplines like biology and astronomy are not explicitly recognized, whereas the rather narrow designation of Physiology or Medicine is promoted.

The prize categories do not represent the logical hierarchies within science. Astronomy may sort within the parent science of physics. “Physiology or Medicine,” on the other hand, is not a major branch of science but rather represents “the healing arts.” Breakthroughs in genetics, immunology, and other branches of biological science have been shoe-horned into most of the slots nominally assigned to Medicine. This may be understandable from the viewpoint of the time when Nobel drafted his will (1895). The fields of biology and astronomy were likely viewed as idle pastimes—pressing of flowers and gazing at stars—rather than science.

Understandable as it is, the “what’s it good for” criterion may have been at the root of what many now see as Nobel Foundation blunders. Edwin Hubble and his discovery of galaxies outside the Milky Way (known in 1923) was ignored, while the now-reviled practice of frontal lobotomy was awarded the prize in 1949. Also, because prizes tend to come only after their practical application has been abundantly demonstrated, scientists are often not honored until late in their career (or never). The structure of DNA was elucidated in 1953, but the prize was not awarded until 1962 (after the death of Rosalind Franklin, one of the primary contributors to the work). And the discovery that DNA is the molecule of inheritance (known in 1944) was never acknowledged by the Nobel Foundation. 

Alfred Nobel himself studied chemistry, but his most notable technological contribution to the world is his “packaging” of nitroglycerine into sticks of dynamite and the invention of blasting caps used in their detonation. By dispersing nitroglycerine in a dough-like aggregate, dynamite (unlike its component nitro) did not explode until exposed to the detonating power of the blasting cap, making it safe to use in normal construction projects.

Nobel’s empire made possible the trust that annually administers five prizes valued at more than $1 million each. But perhaps his greatest legacy is in dynamite itself for enabling mining and construction. Nobel saw possibility in something as unlikely as nitroglycerine. His legacy continues to encourage those willing to see new possibility.

This article originally appeared in the November 30, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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