Nobel Prize winners 2018

As the Nobel Prize season ends, I would like to quickly catch up on everything what happened for the past month at the Karolinska Institute and introduce you to this year’s laureates. Why? Firstly, because you might have had not enough time to browse internet in need for that information ALSO because I hope all of you would like to stay informed and celebrate the great achievements of the wisest ones on Earth!

  1. This year, The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo – pioneers is cancer immunotherapy. The joint prize for „for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation”. What does this mean? Our lymphocyte T-cells bind to the antigens in order to start an immune response when needed. Nevertheless, apart from the proteins which recognize the antigens in order to take an action, on the surface of T-cells there are also proteins/receptors which turn them off [inhibit their response]. Inhibition of T-cell activation results in a lack of immune response even if the antigen is present in our body [this is a so-called “negative regulation”]. It is known that sneaky tumors are using this feature to stop our immune system from attacking them. It’s very clever of most cancers to train their cells to turn off the only feature in our immune system which allows them to kill them!

So this is what Allison and Honjo worked on – they tried to “hide” the immune system breaks when T-cells are in contact with the sneaky cells. These turn-off switches are called CTLA4 and PD-1, first one binds to the proteins on dendritic cells [antigen-presenting cells], while the second one recognizes antigens on the surface of cancer cells. In both cases, the laureates of this year’s Nobel Prize developed drugs which inhibit these turn-off switches. In result, the T-cells stay active and are able to elicit immune response against tumors. We know already that these immunotherapies are effective against lung or renal cancers, lymphomas and melanomas. Combined techniques (CTLA4 + PD-1 inhibition) are being proven effective against most cancers, especially against metastatic (previously incurable) ones. This is an enormous step towards curing one of the most common and devastating diseases of our time.

  1. Chemistry Nobel Prize 2018 went to the amazing female laureate Frances H. Arnold for the directed evolution of enzymes and jointly to George P. Smith and Sir Greggory P. Winter for the phage display of peptides and antibodies. In case you are already lost I will start from explaining the first award. Imagine that practically all organisms which use DNA as their genetic material have parts of their genomes coding for enzymes – the proteins which catalyze reactions [speed up chemical reactions]. Some organisms seem to have more useful enzymes than others, and what Prof. Arnold did was to create completely new types of enzymes through the ways of directed evolution inside the organisms in order to produce new substances – such as biofuels from bacteria. This is in general the same process which happens during a selective breeding of dogs or horses. Nowadays these methods are used extensively to produce pharmaceuticals or sustainable fuels or sophisticated chemicals.

As mentioned before, the second half of the prize went to professors Smith and Winter for developing a method called phage display. What is it about? Imagine that bacteriophages (viruses of bacteria) carry a genetic material for their capsule, so in they inject that material inside the host cell to replicate. Smith found that that bacteriophages express certain proteins on their surfaces in order to bind to the desired cells. Winter used this idea to incorporate genes which encode different antibodies so that phages bind to the proteins according to what antibody is expressed. Then the phages matching to the protein of interest are collected and randomly mutated in order to create an antibody which has a perfect fit. This is a quite elegant process which aims to engineer antibodies for the treatment of diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis (more undergo clinical trials at the moment).

  1. The Nobel Prize in Physics 2018 in the field of laser physics was awarded to Arthur Ashkin for the “optical tweezers and their application to biological systems” and for Gerard Mourou and Donna Strickland who jointly got the second half of the prize for generation of “high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses”. The first physicist used radiation pressure of light to trap very tiny objects and move them. He found a way of capturing living bacteria without harming them what started his research in biological application of laser tweezers.
    The second pair of winners created the most frequent and the shortest laser pulses. Their technique is called chirped pulse amplification (CPA) and will become a new-version of high-intensity lasers which are being used in for example eye surgeries.
  2. This year William Nordhaus and Paul Romer shared the Nobel Prize in economics for “for integrating technological innovations into long-run macroeconomic analysis. Macroeconomy used to tell us how technological innovations drive the economic growth. Then in 1990, Romer has published a theory now called “endogenous growth theory” which helped to explain that ideas are different than any other market goods and require different conditions to thrive in the market. It allowed the creation of policies and laws encouraging new ideas to be brought into life and support the economy.

In turn, Nordhaus has researched the interactions between the society and nature. He was the first economist to define the role of economy in climate change. His model is now used in climate-related and economical predictions, such as implementing new policies or taxes. Both laureates gave us meaningful tools to assess the creation and the consequences of technology advance as well as its role in climate change.

  1. The Peace Nobel Prize has been awarded to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for putting their lives at risk during actions undertaken against sexual violence as the war crime. They fought for justice and promoted changes in UN policies to include sexual violence as a violation of international law. Nadia was the victim of such violence and Denis was the helper who defended such sufferers. Both laureates significantly contributed to raising global awareness as well as making political changes in this matter.

There is nothing more inspiring than learning about laureates of the most prestigious prize in the world. I wish everyone to believe that they can achieve unbelievable things when we find passion in life and follow our dreams!

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