The announcement of the Nobel Prizes for the year began last Monday. But the sheen had dimmed for there was no Literature Prize for the first time in 70 years because of the #MeToo scandal. On the same day, the man at the centre of the Swedish Academy sex abuse scandal, Jean-Claude Arnault, was sentenced to two years in prison for rape.
The academy plans to announce both the 2018 and the 2019 winner next year — although the head of the Nobel Foundation has said the body must fix its tarnished reputation first.
This year’s amputated awards also saw the oldest Nobel Prize winner and as well as a woman laureate for the first time since 2015. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences will be announced on October 8. Here’s a look at the winners:
Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for using a sped-up version of evolution to create new proteins that have led to a best-selling drug and other products. The Royal Swedish Academy of Science said their work had led to the development of medications, biofuels and a reduced environmental impact from some industrial processes.
Frances Arnold of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena was awarded half of the 9-million-kronor ($1.01 million) prize, while the other half was shared by George Smith of the University of Missouri and Gregory Winter of the MRC molecular biology lab in Cambridge, England. Arnold is only the fifth woman to win a chemistry Nobel since the prizes began in 1901.
In nature, evolution proceeds slowly as random genetic mutations generate variety in organisms and proteins, and those versions that work best in their environment persist for future generations. The research mimicked that process by inducing mutations in proteins and selecting those that best met the goals of the research.
Smith (77) and Winter (67) worked with viruses called phages that infect bacteria. Smith showed that inserting DNA into these viruses would make them display proteins linked to that DNA on their surfaces. It was a way to find an unknown gene for a known protein.
Winter adapted the approach to create useful antibodies, proteins that target and grab onto disease-related targets. Winter introduced mutations to make antibodies progressively better at binding to their targets.
The first pharmaceutical based on Winter’s work, AbbVie’s adalimumab, was approved for sale in 2002. It’s used to treat immune-system disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases. It brought AbbVie $18.4 billion in revenue last year.
Other antibodies produced by this approach fight cancer, neutralise the anthrax toxin and slow down lupus, the Swedish academy said.
Scientists from the United States, Canada and France won the Nobel Prize in physics for revolutionising the use of lasers in research, finding ways to make them deliver more powerful flashes of light and even to act like tiny tweezers.
Their work paved the way for laser eye surgery to improve vision and studies that can manipulate cells and their innards. While laser eye surgery is the most familiar application of their work, it has also let scientists probe fundamental forces acting within matter at very high temperatures and pressures.
The two winners also made history for other reasons. Arthur Ashkin, the American who developed ‘optical tweezers,’ became the oldest Nobel Prize laureate at age 96. The earlier oldest winners of the prizes were 88 — Doris Lessing for literature and Raymond Davis for physics.
Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada became only the third woman to win the physics Nobel, and the first in 55 years. Strickland and the third winner, Frenchman Gerard Mourou of the Ecole Polytechnique and University of Michigan, developed a way to generate high-intensity, ultra-short bursts of laser light. They share half of the 9 million kronor ($1.01 million) prize, while the other half goes to Ashkin, who worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey.
Ashkin said he was pleasantly surprised when he got the 5 a.m. call from Sweden. “I’m very old and had given up worrying about things like Nobel Prizes,” he told The Associated Press.
The Royal Academy of Sciences said Ashkin’s development of optical tweezers that can grab tiny particles such as viruses without damaging them realised “an old dream of science fiction,” using the tiny amount of pressure exerted by beams of light to move objects.
That means lasers can be used to push, pull or hold in place tiny objects like atoms, molecules and living cells. Optical tweezers “created entirely new opportunities for observing and controlling the machinery of life,” the Nobel committee said.
With the ability to manipulate tiny cells like sperm and eggs, optical tweezers are used in research involving in vitro fertilisation. They can also be used to grab and stretch cells, and so distinguish between normal and cancerous cells.
“With the technique we have developed, laser power has been increased about a million times, maybe even a billion,” Mourou said in a video statement released by Ecole Polytechnique.
Strickland’s award was the first Nobel Prize in physics to go to a woman since 1963, when it was won by Maria Goeppert-Mayer; the only other woman to win for physics was Marie Curie in 1903. Strickland is also the first woman to be named a Nobel laureate since 2015.
James Allison of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University learned how cancer can put the brakes on the immune system and how to release those brakes.
Their work, conducted separately during the 1990s, led to the development of drugs known as ‘checkpoint inhibitors’, first used to treat the deadly skin cancer melanoma but now used for a growing list of advanced-stage tumours, including those of the lungs, head and neck, bladder, kidney, colon and liver.
The drugs marked an entirely new way to treat tumours, a kind of immunotherapy that uses the patient’s own body to kill cancer cells. Up until then, the standard arsenal consisted of surgery to remove the tumour and radiation and chemotherapy to poison the cancer.
“Not all patients respond to this, but for the ones that do, it has made a huge difference to their lives,” Dr Arlene Sharpe, co-chair of microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard Medical School, said.
Dr Jedd Wolchok, chief of the melanoma and immunotherapeutics service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said: “An untold number of lives … have been saved by the science that they pioneered.”
Indeed, a drug based on Honjo’s research was used to treat former President Jimmy Carter, who was diagnosed in 2015 with melanoma that had spread to his brain. A year later, he announced he no longer needed treatment.
Allison’s research led to development of the drug Yervoy, approved in 2011 after studies showed it extended the survival of some patients with late-stage melanoma. A few years later, developers created drugs that release the PD-1 brake Honjo discovered — Keytruda and Opdivo.
Nadia Murad survived the worst cruelties inflicted on her people, the Yazidis of Iraq, before becoming a global champion of their cause and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Murad and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege were jointly awarded the prize for their ‘efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war,’ Nobel committee chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen said.
Twenty-five-year-old Murad, once lived a quiet life in her village in the mountainous Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar in northern Iraq, close to the border with Syria.
But when the so-called Islamic State jihadist group stormed across swathes of the two countries in 2014, her fate changed forever and her nightmare began. Murad was taken by force to Mosul, the de facto ‘capital’ of the IS’ self-declared caliphate. She was held captive and repeatedly gang-raped, tortured and beaten. Today, Murad and her friend Lamia Haji Bashar, joint recipients of the EU’s 2016 Sakharov human rights prize, continue the fight for the 3,000 Yazidis who remain missing, presumed still in captivity.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they call him ‘Doctor Miracle’ for his surgical skill and dedication in helping women overcome the injuries and trauma of sexual abuse and rape. Denis Mukwege is a crusading gynaecologist who has spent more than two decades treating appalling injuries inflicted on women in DRC and his work was the subject of an acclaimed 2015 film titled: ‘The Man Who Mends Women.’
“For 15 years, I have witnessed mass atrocities committed against women’s bodies and I cannot remain with my arms folded because our common humanity calls on us to care for each other.” His work has also put his own life on the line, with Mukwege narrowly escaping an attack on his life in October 2012, in which his guard was killed.
At the Bukavu hospital, which serves as a clinic for gynaecological and obstetric care, he lives under the permanent protection of UN peacekeepers. The 450-bed Panzi hospital that Mukwege founded treats more than 3,500 women a year, though not all for sexual abuse, providing free consultations and performing reconstructive surgery on women who have suffered serious internal injuries.