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Hot tips for Nobel Prize

DN’s science editor Karin Bojs reviews the shortlist for the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics and Medicine.

The Nobel Prize award winners will be announced this week. At the moment only a small, select group knows for certain who is to be honored. The US and Japanese media have approached the unofficial shortlist of leading candidates, but like the rest of us they can only guess. DN's traditional Nobel Prize prognostication has a good track record and is a factor to be reckoned with by those in the betting industry.

Of the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics and Medicine last year I got one right, guessing correctly that Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov would share the Physics award for their experiments regarding the new, super-flat material grapheme. The year prior (2009) I was more on track, as I correctly tipped Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider in Medicine and Ada Yonath in Chemistry. Their selection set a record for the number of female Nobel Laureates.

Medicine

Here, as I see them, are the likely choices for the prizes in science and medicine in 2011. The Prize in Medicine will this year go to Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka for his work with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells).

Yamanaka will probably share the award with a more senior British scientist John Gurdon, who was the first ever in the world to clone an animal. Back in the late 50s – forty years before Dolly the sheep – Gurdon succeeded in cloning frogs. In both cases, the research has to do with reversal of development, culminating in the transformation of the adult back into the juvenile.

At times, critics of the Nobel Prize in Medicine assert that more recognition should go to drugs and treatments that directly benefit those suffering diseases. Alfred Nobel, however, explicitly wrote in his will that the prize should go to “the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine”. Physiology has to do with how the body’s biological mechanisms function, rather than the treatment of illness. In this respect, Gurdon’s cloning technique and Yamanaka’s stem cells are both basic science of fundamental importance but so far not a single patient has been cured as a result of these discoveries.

It is, therefore, possible that the Yamanaka and Gurdon may share the Prize in Medicine with Canadian biophysicist James Till, whose discovery of blood stem cells has saved the lives of many thousands of leukemia patients. Till’s long time collaborator, hematologist Ernest McCullogh, died earlier this year, and since Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously he would not share official recognition.

Experts at the news media company Thomson Reuters predict that this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine will be awarded to Briton Nicholas Lydon and Americans Brian Druker, and Charles Sawyer, who developed drugs that have changed chronic leukemia from a fatal illness to a routinely manageable disease. In developed countries it is perhaps the most dramatic heath care advance in recent years. Thomson Reuters may well be right on this one.

Above all, I lean towards the discovery of so-called nuclear receptors. These sit inside the cells and pick up hormones, vitamins and other substances: a phenomenon of great significance to the pharmaceutical industry. If the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, which is responsible for the choice of the Nobel Laureates in Medicine and Physiology, then two Americans, Ronald Evans and Elwood Jensen, would share the Prize money with Frenchman Pierre Chambon.

Occasionally it strikes the Nobel Committee’s fancy to recommend an unexpected dark horse. One that I very much hope for is the Californian physiologist David Julius. He has located receptors (receivers) that transmit pain, heat and cold. Interestingly, the receptor for heat also reacts to the spicy hot of chili peppers and the receptor for cold reacts to the chill of mint.

Chemistry

The borderline between medicine and chemistry is fluid. Sometimes the hottest candidate for the Prize in Chemistry sweeps up the Prize in Medicine, or vice versa.

The highly qualified odds-setters on the blog ChemBark bet that the men behind the nuclear receptors, Chambon, Jensen and Elwood, will take the chemistry prize. However, I still think that for them medicine is closer at hand.

Chembark and I are, however, completely in agreement that Americans William Moerner and Richard Zare are the most likely candidates for this year's Prize in Chemistry. Both have developed technology that allows the study of single molecules. Moerner, a Stanford professor, is credited with achieving the first optical detection and spectroscopy of a single molecule in condensed phases while Richard Zare, also a Stanford chemistry professor, has developed laser chemistry that can be used to analyze molecular activity everywhere from the auditory canal of the ear to clouds of interstellar gas.

Yale medical school professor Arthur Horwich and German biochemist Franz-Ulrich Hartl, head of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, are both known for their pioneering work in explaining how proteins fold up into stylish and functional forms. They have only recently shared the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (US), which is usually a good sign of a future Nobel Prize. However, again it is an entirely open question since Horwich and Hartl could take either the Prize in Medicine or Chemistry.

I am also a believer in the appeal of DNA sequencing technology. This field, which includes decoding of the human genome, is undergoing a completely revolutionary period of development right now. Here, three Americans stand out as possible winners of the Prize in Chemistry, computer scientist Eugene Myers and biologists Craig Venter and Leroy Hood.

Physics

The Prize in Physics, according to Nobel’s will, is supposed to go to the "most important discovery or invention". The Nobel Committee tends nonetheless to generally favor basic scientific discoveries. Therefore, I bet on quantum entanglement, the ‘spooky’ effect in which Einstein refused believe. The three who would share a prize for this area of physics are Frenchman Alain Aspect, American John Clauser and Austrian Anton Zeilinge, for showing that particles within the same system can have almost telepathic contact with each other, disproving Einstein’s view of the subject.

A related field that might also lead to the physics prize is something called quantum decoherence. French physicist Serge Haroche is the name that comes up in this context.

If the Nobel Committee did choose to recognize an invention, one could imagine that they would consider Japanese engineer Shuji Nakamura, the inventor of the gallium nitride light emitting diode (LED) that is the basis for white LED lighting, a product that has the capacity to reduce global energy consumption like no other.

Translation: Davrell Tien

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