Winning a Nobel Prize is a big deal. Learn more about the researcher that earn one of science’s biggest honors.
Few awards in science carry more prestige than the Nobel Prize. Albert Einstein’s work on the photoelectric effect, Marie Curie’s discovery of radioactivity, Niels Bohr’s development of quantum mechanics and Peter Higgs’s prediction of the Higgs boson are just some examples of the kind of revolutionary research that earns the honor of a Nobel Prize. Winners, in addition to their share a $1 million, receive worldwide recognition for their work.
This week the Royal Swedish Academy of Science announced this year’s Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, physics, and physiology. Here’s a break down who won, an explanation of their work, and why it is important.
Nobel Prize in physics – Laser tools
Who won: The three scientists are sharing the Nobel Prize for their work in developing two important lasers inventions; Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada, Gerard Mourou of the University of Michigan, and Arthur Ashkin, now retired from Bell Labs.
Their Work: The first tool is “optical tweezers”, a technique in which lasers are used to manipulate microscopic particles. Lasers, focused beams of light, were developed in the 1960’s. They were long speculated to be able to move objects, much like tractor beams in science fiction films. Ashkin’s work developed the technology to manipulate viruses, bacteria, and even individual atoms by using a highly focused laser beam to provide an attractive or repulsive force.
Dr. Strickland and Dr. Mourou’s research was critical in building the most powerful lasers yet created by developing a technique that stretches and amplifies the light beam. This has led to an acceleration in the laser intensity.
Why it matters: Optical tweezers are now widely used to study the intricate inner workings of bacteria and viruses. This has given scientists insight into microscopic biology that has never been understood. The ability to create more powerful lasers has to lead to numerous technologies including laser printers and scanners, disk drives, even LASIK eye surgery.
But perhaps more significantly, Dr. Strickland is just the third woman in history to receive the Nobel Prize in physics and just the second since Marie Curie in 1903. While physics has been an area of science long dominated by men, the award is a step in the right direction towards celebrating women in the field.
Chemistry – Directed evolution
Who won: Frances Arnold of CalTech, George Smith of the University of Missouri and Gregory Winter of MRC Laboratory in the United Kingdom shared the prize for applying evolutionary biology in developing chemicals through a process called directed evolution. Dr. Arnold, who became the fifth women in history to receive the award in chemistry, took half of the $1 million prizes and Dr. Smith and Dr. Winter split the rest.
Their Work: Artificial selection, or selective breeding, is a process by which humans develop traits they want in a population. Individuals with desirable traits reproduce, leading to their offspring having those traits, a procedure that is repeated for many generations. Artificial selection has been around for thousands of years and has allowed us to grow more productive crops, raise cows that produce more milk, and create hundreds of breeds of dogs. Dr. Arnold applied the same technique on enzymes, the biological catalysts that speed up a chemical reaction in living things. Random mutations are generated in a bacteria, which are then screened by whose enzymes perform best. The selected bacteria are cultured, the best of the next generation are selected, and the process continues until a suitable enzyme is has been created.
Dr. Smith developed a technique called phage display, whereby changing the surface proteins on a virus, he could get an infected bacteria to make copies of that molecule. Dr. Winter then combined phage display with the directed evolution developed by Dr. Arnold to produce new antibodies to help immune systems identify threats.
Why it’s important: While the technique is still new, there is a wide scope of practical applications. Better drugs, less toxic chemicals for manufacturing, and cleaner biofuels have already been developed through directed evolution.
Physiology – Cancer Immunotherapy
Who won: James P. Allison of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas and Tasuku Honjo, of the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study in Japan for their work in immunotherapy, using the body’s immune system to attack cancerous cells.
Their Work: While several different types of immunotherapies are in clinical trials, the most promising are called checkpoint inhibitors. T-cells are a type of white blood cell that identifies and kills infected, damaged or cancerous cells in the human body. Antigens, the proteins on the surface of an enemy cell, activate an immune response from the T-cells. However, since cancer cells can avoid being attacked by turning off a switch on the T-cell called an immune checkpoint.
Checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that physically block the immune checkpoint, keeping the cancer cell from going by undetected and allowing the T-cells to attack. Dr. Allison and Dr. Honjo’s research on checkpoint inhibitors have led to several different checkpoint therapies.
Why it’s important: Cancer affects millions of people each year, most of whom receive treatment through surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. These treatments are expensive, kill healthy cells as well as cancerous ones, and can have damaging side effects, especially in older patients. While we have a long way to go before cancer is completely cured, immunotherapies have given hope to the millions of people each year who suffer from the disease.