Here’s what we can expect from the 2021 Nobel Laureates

(CNN) – The coronavirus pandemic has focused attention on the role of science in society like never before, and the pace of scientific discovery has been dizzying.

The brightest 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 are not informed in advance) are catapulted to instant fame, their discoveries come out of academic obscurity, are googled and discussed.

Although it is famously difficult to predict who will win a Nobel Prize, both the list of candidates and nominators are secret, and the documents that reveal the juiciest details are sealed in public view for 50 years, here are some candidates who deserve to win. the Nobel and his life-changing discoveries.

The science of vaccines

The Lasker Awards and the Breakthrough Awards (the latter founded by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg), often regarded as precursors to a Nobel Prize, were awarded in 2021 to scientists whose work was crucial to the development of vaccines against COVID-19.

The Lasker went to Katalin Karikó, Senior Vice President of Germany-based BioNTech, and Drew Weissman, a professor of 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 material to fight the virus. Although his work received little attention when his research was first published in 2005, it is now the basis for 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 coronavirus today, but holds great promise for future vaccines and treatments for a wide range of diseases. such as HIV, cancer and autoimmune and genetic diseases, “said the Breakthrough Award in its announcement.

Nevertheless, there is a debate on who deserves the credit for being the pioneer of this technology, since mRNA research began in the 1980s and involved different groups of scientists from around the world.

Under the rules established by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel in 1895, the Nobel Prize selection committee can only award a maximum of three people, something that is increasingly difficult given the collaborative nature of many scientific investigations.

DNA sequencing

David Pendlebury is a senior citation analyst at the Institute for Scientific Information at the research company Clarivate, which makes predictions about the Nobel observing how often key articles by a scientist are cited by colleagues. Pendlebury believes that it is too early for the science behind COVID-19 vaccines to receive Nobel recognition. Pendlebury said that the Nobel committee is innately conservative and usually waits at least a decade, if not several, before granting entry into its exclusive club.

He believes 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, particularly B and T cells, is at the basis of research on vaccines.

The Breakthrough Award also recognized Shankar Balasubramanian, David Klenerman, and Pascal Mayer for their work on next-generation DNA sequencing technologies.

Before his inventions, resequencing an entire human genome could take many months and cost millions of dollars. Today it can be completed in 24 hours at a cost of about $ 600, the Breakthrough Prize Foundation said. This has transformed many fields, such as biology, ecology, paleoarchaeology, forensic medicine, and personalized medicine.


What if Einstein had been a woman? 12:45

In 2019, the Nobel Prize Committee asked nominators to consider gender, geography and field diversity, but that year there was an all-male roster of honorees. Last year, two women, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, they won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for the development of the CRISPR method for genome editing, while Andrea Ghez was part of the trio that won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on a supermassive black hole.

Although Pendlebury says that some of this can be attributed to a “lag effect,” others say there is evidence of a systemic bias.

“The Nobel Prize usually recognizes people who contributed discoveries 20, 30 or 40 years ago. In the 80s and 90s, in universities there were not many women at the high levels: department directors, leaders in their field, at that time “Pendlebury said. “That has changed dramatically in the last 40 years.”

There is no shortage of women who can be rewarded for science. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a Northern Irish physicist, is often mentioned as a possible physics winner for her work on the discovery of pulsars, one of the major astronomical discoveries of the 20th century. In medicine, the American geneticist Mary-Claire King discovered in 1990 the BRCA mutations and their relationship with the risk of breast cancer, confirming a hereditary risk of cancer.

There is also very little geographic diversity, as most of the winners continue to come from elite institutions in the United States and Europe, although, according to Pendlebury’s analysis of citations from scientific journals, the most cited works come from Asia. One Nobel Prize-winning scientist named by Pendlebury this year is Ho Wang Lee, professor emeritus at Korea University in Seoul, for his work on identification and isolation of hantaviruses, a family of viruses spread by rodents that cause various diseases throughout the world.

There have been no black Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, and medicine (although there is better representation in the Nobel Peace Prize and literature). A possible black winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine is the American doctor and researcher Marilyn Hughes Gaston, for his groundbreaking work on sickle cell anemia – an inherited disease in which the body is unable to produce hemoglobin normally – which led to detection at birth and preventive treatment of those affected.

The Nobel Prize for Medicine will be announced on Monday, October 4, the Prize for Physics on Tuesday and the Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday, followed by the Prize for Literature on Thursday, the Prize for Peace on Friday and the Prize for Economics the following Monday.

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Here’s what we can expect from the 2021 Nobel Laureates

Hank Gilbert