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Three Nobel Prizes with life science applications

Illustration Nobel Prize Chemistry 2018

This week, the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine, Physics and Chemistry were announced, and all three of them have important life science applications, including cancer immunotherapy, eye operations and the production of new pharmaceuticals.

Cancer immunotherapy

The first Nobel Prize to be announced this year was the Physiology or Medicine Prize and the two winners were James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo, “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”

James P. Allison studied a known protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. He realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors. He then developed this concept into a brand new approach for treating patients. In parallel, Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and, after careful exploration of its function, eventually revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action. Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer.

James Allison and Tasuku Honjo

About the Physiology or Medicine Laureates

James P. Allison was born 1948 in Alice, Texas, USA. He received his PhD in 1973 at the University of Texas, Austin. From 1974-1977 he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, La Jolla, California. From 1977-1984 he was a faculty member at University of Texas System Cancer Center, Smithville, Texas; from 1985-2004 at University of California, Berkeley and from 2004-2012 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York. From 1997-2012 he was an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Since 2012 he has been Professor at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas and is affiliated with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

Tasuku Honjo was born in 1942 in Kyoto, Japan. In 1966 he became an MD, and from 1971-1974 he was a research fellow in USA at Carnegie Institution of Washington, Baltimore and at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland. He received his PhD in 1975 at Kyoto University. From 1974-1979 he was a faculty member at Tokyo University and from 1979-1984 at Osaka University. Since 1984 he has been Professor at Kyoto University. He was a Faculty Dean from 1996-2000 and from 2002-2004 at Kyoto University.

Optical tweezers and corrective eye surgeries

On Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that they had decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics 2018 “for groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics”, with one half to Arthur Ashkin “for the optical tweezers and their application to biological systems” and the other half jointly to Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland “for their method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses”.

Capture living bacteria without harming them

Arthur Ashkin invented optical tweezers that grab particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells with their laser beam fingers. This new tool allowed him to – using the radiation pressure of light – to move physical objects. He succeeded in getting laser light to push small particles towards the centre of the beam and to hold them there. A major breakthrough came in 1987, when Ashkin used the tweezers to capture living bacteria without harming them. He began studying biological systems and optical tweezers are now widely used to investigate the machinery of life.

Chirped pulse amplification

Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland paved the way towards the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created by mankind. Their revolutionary article was published in 1985. They succeeded in creating ultrashort high-intensity laser pulses without destroying the amplifying material. First they stretched the laser pulses in time to reduce their peak power, then amplified them, and finally compressed them. If a pulse is compressed in time and becomes shorter, then more light is packed together in the same tiny space – the intensity of the pulse increases dramatically. Strickland and Mourou’s newly invented technique, called chirped pulse amplification, CPA, soon became standard for subsequent high-intensity lasers. Its uses include the millions of corrective eye surgeries that are conducted every year using the sharpest of laser beams.

Laureates in Physics 2018

Illustration of Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland: Niklas Elmehed. © Nobel Media

About the Physics Laureates

Arthur Ashkin, born 1922 in New York, USA. Ph.D. 1952 from Cornell University, Ithaca, USA.
Gérard Mourou, born 1944 in Albertville, France. Ph.D. 1973.
Donna Strickland, born 1959 in Guelph, Canada. Ph.D. 1989 from University of Rochester, USA.

Evolution of enzymes and phage display

On Wednesday it was time for the Chemistry Prize. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Prize to Frances H. Arnold “for the directed evolution of enzymes” (1/2) and to George P. Smith  and Sir Gregory P. Winter (1/2) “for the phage display of peptides and antibodies”.

The 2018 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken control of evolution and used it for purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind. Enzymes produced through directed evolution are used to manufacture everything from biofuels to pharmaceuticals. Antibodies evolved using a method called phage display can combat autoimmune diseases and in some cases cure metastatic cancer. Since the first seeds of life arose around 3.7 billion years ago, almost every crevice on Earth has filled with different organisms. Life has spread to hot springs, deep oceans and dry deserts, all because evolution has solved a number of chemical problems. Life’s chemical tools – proteins – have been optimized, changed and renewed, creating incredible diversity. This year’s Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have been inspired by the power of evolution and used the same principles – genetic change and selection – to develop proteins that solve mankind’s chemical problems.

First directed evolution of enzymes

One half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to Frances H. Arnold. In 1993, she conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyse chemical reactions. Since then, she has refined the methods that are now routinely used to develop new catalysts. The uses of Frances Arnold’s enzymes include more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels for a greener transport sector.

Phage display

The other half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is shared by George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter. In 1985, George Smith developed an elegant method known as phage display, where a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new proteins. Gregory Winter used phage display for the directed evolution of antibodies, with the aim of producing new pharmaceuticals. The first one based on this method, adalimumab, was approved in 2002 and is used for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases. Since then, phage display has produced antibodies that can neutralize toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.

Chemistry Laureates 2018

Frances H. Arnold, George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter, 2018 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2018

About the Chemistry Laureates

Frances H. Arnold, born 1956 in Pittsburgh, USA. Ph.D. 1985, University of California, Berkeley, USA. Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, USA.
George P. Smith, born 1941 in Norwalk, USA. Ph.D. 1970, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA. Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, USA.
Sir Gregory P. Winter, born 1951 in Leicester, UK. Ph.D. 1976. University of Cambridge, UK. Research Leader Emeritus, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK.

Start image: Illustration © Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences