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The coronavirus pandemic has focused attention on the role of science in society like never before – and the pace of scientific discovery has been blistering.
The greatest minds in physics, chemistry and medicine will be honored when the Nobel Prizes, the pinnacle of scientific achievement, are announced next week. The winners (who aren’t told beforehand) find themselves catapulted into instant celebrity, their discoveries thrust from academic obscurity, Googled and discussed.
While predicting who will win a Nobel Prize is famously difficult – the short list is secret, as are the nominators, and documents revealing the juicy details are sealed from public view for 50 years, here are some Nobel-worthy candidates and the life-changing discoveries they have made.
The Lasker Awards and Breakthrough Prizes (the latter founded by founded by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg), often seen as precursors to a Nobel Prize, were given in 2021 to the scientists whose work was crucial for the development of Covid-19 vaccines.
The Lasker went to Katalin Karikó, a senior vice president at BioNTech based in Germany, and Drew Weissman, a professor in vaccine research at the University of Pennsylvania, for developing a method of using synthetic messenger RNA to fight disease that involves changing the way the body produces virus-fighting material. While their paper received little attention when their research was first published in 2005, it is now the basis of two widely used Covid-19 vaccines.
“Convinced of the promise of mRNA therapies despite widespread skepticism, they created a technology that is not only vital in the fight against the coronavirus today, but holds vast promise for future vaccines and treatments for a wide range of diseases including HIV, cancer, autoimmune and genetic diseases,” the Breakthrough Prize said in its announcement.
However, there is debate over who deserves credit for pioneering this technology, with research on mRNA beginning way back in the 1980s and involving different groups of scientists all over the world.
Complicating matters for the Nobel selection committee, according to the rules laid down by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel in 1895, is that a Nobel can only honor up to three people – something that is getting harder given the collaborative nature of much scientific research.
David Pendlebury is a senior citation analyst at the research company Clarivate’s Institute for Scientific Information, who makes Nobel predictions by looking at how often a scientist’s key papers are cited by peers. Pendlebury said he thinks it’s too soon for the science behind the Covid-19 vaccines to be given Nobel recognition. He said that the Nobel committee is innately conservative and usually waits at least a decade, if not several, before bestowing membership to its exclusive club.
He thinks that the committee could honor Jacques Miller, a French-Australian researcher, whose discovery about the organization and function of the human immune system in the 1960s, in particular B cells and T cells, is underpinning vaccine research.
The Breakthrough Prize also recognized Shankar Balasubramanian, David Klenerman and Pascal Mayer for their work on next-generation DNA sequencing technologies.
Before their inventions, re-sequencing a full human genome could take many months and cost millions of dollars. Today it can be completed with 24 hours at the cost of around $600, the Breakthrough Prize Foundation said. This has transformed many fields including biology, ecology, paleoarchaeology, forensics and personalized medicine.
In 2019, the Nobel Committee asked nominators to consider diversity in gender, geography and field but that year saw an all-male line-up of laureates. Last year, two women, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, won the Nobel prize for chemistry, for the development of the CRISPR method for genome editing, while Andrea Ghez was part of a trio that won the Nobel prize for physics for her work on a supermassive blackhole.
While Pendlebury says that some of this can be attributed to a “lag effect,” others say there is evidence of systemic bias.
“The Nobel Prize is typically recognizing people who contributed discoveries 20, 30, 40 years ago. In the ’80s and ‘90s, in universities there weren’t very many women as senior people – heads of departments, leaders in their field – at that time,” Pendlebury said. “That has changed dramatically in the last 40 years.”
There’s no shortage of potential female science laureates. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a physicist from Northern Ireland, is often mentioned as a potential physics winner for her work on the discovery of pulsars, one of the major astronomical discoveries of the 20th century. In medicine, American geneticist Mary-Claire King discovered the BRCA mutations and their link to breast cancer risk in 1990, confirming an inherited risk of cancer.
There’s also very little geographic diversity, with most winners still coming from elite institutions in the United States and Europe although, according to Pendlebury’s analysis of journal citations, more highly cited papers are coming from Asia. One Nobel-worthy scientist flagged by Pendlebury this year is Ho Wang Lee, a professor emeritus at Korea University, Seoul, for his work on identifying and isolating hantaviruses, a family of viruses spread by rodents that cause varied diseases worldwide.
There have not been any Black Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine (although there’s better representation in the Nobel Prizes for peace and literature). One potential Black Nobel winner in medicine is US physician and researcher Marilyn Hughes Gaston for her ground-breaking work on sickle cell disease, an inherited condition in which the body is unable to produce normal hemoglobin, that led to screening at birth and preventative treatment for those affected.
The Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology will be announced on Monday October 4, physics on Tuesday and chemistry will be announced on Wednesday, followed by the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and the Prize in Economic Sciences next Monday.