(Inside Science) -- Every year, the Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine, physics, and chemistry honor great advances and discoveries in science. Last year, one of our top contenders in medicine -- checkpoint inhibitors for cancer therapy -- won. We were not as successful in the other two categories. But buoyed by that modicum of success, we will again attempt to summarize nine top contenders for these famous science prizes (including one repeat from last year).
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine -- Announced October 7
Written by Nala Rogers
Genes for Breast Cancer
As early as 1913, researchers had noticed that certain types of cancer run in families, suggesting that the risk was inherited. That led mid-20th-century researchers to suspect that cancer risk could be encoded in the DNA. But as geneticist Maynard Olson told the University of Washington's alumni magazine Columns in 1996, most assumed that cancer risk would include many different genes and environmental factors, with each gene contributing only a small amount.
In 1990, Mary-Claire King, now at the University of Washington, proved that it doesn't always work that way. She pinpointed a region of the genome that accounted for a large fraction of the risk in families prone to breast and ovarian cancers. That region must therefore contain a gene of paramount importance. She named the hypothetical gene BRCA1, setting off a race between several labs to clone and sequence it.
Mark Skolnick's team at the University of Utah was the first to sequence BRCA1. Shortly thereafter, researchers discovered another important breast cancer gene, now dubbed BRCA2. Both genes normally function to suppress cancer, but mutations can impair that function and allow cancer to take hold. Women with mutated BRCA1 genes have a more than 60% chance of developing breast cancer by age 70.
The discovery of the BRCA genes has allowed thousands of people to enact preventive measures based on their genetic risk. It also launched a new field of research into the links between genes and health, opening the door to precision medicine that is customized to individual patients.
Curing Hepatitis C
It's not often that researchers discover a way to cure nearly all cases of a previously deadly disease. But that's essentially what's happened with hepatitis C, a virus that causes chronic infections and often leads to liver cancer and cirrhosis.
Hepatitis C was discovered in 1989, but for years it proved difficult to work with. It only infects humans and chimpanzees, so researchers couldn't study it in existing lab animals, and it resisted attempts to grow it in cultures of human cells. Early treatments caused severe side effects and were often ineffective.
Researchers including Charles Rice of Rockefeller University and Ralf Bartenschlager of Heidelberg University figured out how to grow the virus in cell cultures in the first decade of the 2000s, paving the way for development of a new group of highly effective antiviral drugs. One of the most famous of these is Sofosbuvir, also known as Sovaldi, which was developed by Michael Sofia, now at Arbutus Biopharma. Sofia, Bartenschlager and Rice won the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research award for their hepatitis C work in 2016.
For the approximately 71 million people worldwide with chronic hepatitis C infections, the new drugs could be lifesaving. But they have been too expensive for many people to afford, leading to widespread criticism. In 2014 the pharmaceutical company Gilead entered into generic licensing agreements to bring down Sofosbuvir prices in developing countries, but a 12-week course of treatment still costs about $84,000 in the U.S.
Lighting Up the Brain
Optogenetics is a technique that uses light to trigger or suppress activity in neurons, and scientists are using it to reveal how the brain works with unprecedented precision. The technique uses a group of light-sensitive proteins called microbial opsins that are naturally found in organisms such as algae and archaea. With the help of viruses, researchers can insert genes for these opsins into the neurons of animals, including humans.
The most commonly used opsin, channelrhodopsin-2, makes neurons "fire" (send electrical signals) when exposed to blue light. Other types of opsins respond to different colors of light, and some silence neurons instead of activating them. The light is usually delivered to the brain through fiberoptic filaments.
Researchers have used optogenetics to uncover the neural networks behind many brain processes, including hunger, sleep, pleasure, anxiety and memory. They have also used it to learn about neurological disorders such as epilepsy and Parkinson's disease, as well as psychological disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
To date, most optogenetics research has been conducted on lab animals. But the technique can also be used in humans, potentially as a way to treat brain disorders by controlling when specific neurons fire. Zhuo-Hua Pan of Wayne State University is already using optogenetics in people's retinal neurons to treat blindness. (Pan may have been the first to make the technique work in the lab, although he was unable to publish soon enough to receive credit for inventing it.)
If the Nobel Committee decides to grant a prize for optogenetics, it might have trouble deciding between such names as Edward Boyden, Ernst Bamberg, Gero Miesenböck and Peter Hegemann, all of whom have won prestigious prizes for their roles in developing the technique. But they would be sure to include Karl Deisseroth, whose Stanford lab produced the seminal 2005 paper introducing optogenetics to the world.
The Nobel Prize in Physics -- Announced October 8
Written by Yuen Yiu
Detecting exoplanets and seeing blackholes
Before 1992, humans had only ever known eight planets, or nine if you counted Pluto. Since then, astronomers have discovered more than 4,000 exoplanets. Those findings gave validation to the gut feeling many people have long had, that our corner of the cosmic neighborhood may not be unique, that there are many planets and star systems out there, that we may not be alone.
Together, Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail discovered the first exoplanets in 1992. The two planets, nicknamed Poltergeist and Phobetor, orbit around a rapidly spinning neutron star 2,300 light-years away from us.
Then in 1995, Michel Mayor together with Didier Queloz discovered the first exoplanet orbiting around a sunlike star only 50 light-years away. The discovery was just as groundbreaking since it employed a new method for finding exoplanets in star systems similar to ours.
Earlier this year, the first image of a black hole went viral and was reported by the media as one of the scientific discovery highlights in recent years. However, the discovery, announced in April by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, may be too late to be considered for this year’s Nobel Prize. We have talked about the Nobel Committee’s policy regarding nomination deadlines before. It is also unclear who would receive the award if the committee wished to award the prize for the image. The committee has been criticized for its rigid policy of limiting its science prizes to three individuals each, which reinforces the outdated idea of “lone geniuses” in science.
Two new classes of superconductors
Superconductivity is the name for the phenomenon by which electric currents pass through a material with zero resistance. It was first discovered in 1911 by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, who won the 1913 prize, and was explained in 1957 by John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and John Robert Schrieffer, who shared the 1972 prize. (Bardeen was also the only person to have won two separate Nobel Prizes in physics. The other time was in 1956 for the invention of the transistor.)
In 1986, Johannes Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Müller discovered a class of materials containing copper oxides that can retain their superconductivity at temperatures above what was allowed by the 1957 theory. The duo would win the Nobel Prize a year later in 1987. After the discovery of the copper materials, two decades would go by without any dramatic breakthroughs in the field.
That changed in 2008, when a team of researchers from Japan, led by Hideo Hosono, discovered a new class of iron-containing materials that exhibits superconductivity at unconventionally high temperatures. Then, in 2014, a group from Germany, led by Mikhail Eremets, discovered another family of superconducting materials, this time containing hydrogen. The existence of these materials was predicted in the 1960s by Neil Ashcroft and 2003 Nobel laureate Vitaly Ginzburg.
The discovery of these new materials opened new doors for scientists to better understand and work with the mysterious phenomenon, which has already brought us many modern inventions such as MRI machines and particle accelerators and may find future applications in fusion reactors or a lossless power grid.
In 2018, scientists placed the first quantum-encrypted video call between China and Austria via a quantum communication satellite. Shortly after, the U.S. signed into law the National Quantum Initiative Act, aiming to invest in the research and training in quantum information science due to its enormous potential for commercial and national security applications. Banks are looking into using the technology to safeguard their information, and tech giants like Google and IBM are developing quantum computers that can perform certain calculations in minutes instead of years using classical supercomputers.
None of this would have been possible without the theoretical and experimental groundwork laid by the pioneers of the field.
In 1964, physicist John Stewart Bell laid out the theoretical foundation for addressing a paradox in quantum physics, a problem that Einstein had famously struggled with. Known as Bell’s theorem, it would later become one of the most important concepts in the field of quantum information science.
Over the ensuing decades, scientists conducted increasingly sophisticated experiments that put Bell’s theorem to the test. Three physicists, Alain Aspect, John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger, were recognized by the Wolf Prize in 2010 “for their fundamental conceptual and experimental contributions to the foundations of quantum physics, specifically an increasingly sophisticated series of tests of Bell's inequalities.” Sadly, the theory’s namesake Bell passed away in 1990, making him ineligible for the Nobel prize since it is against the committee’s policy to award its prize posthumously.
We included the trio in our prediction last year as well.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry -- Announced October 9
Written by Catherine Meyers
Stacking Chemical Building Blocks to Make New Materials
A sponge sops up water because it's full of holes. The winners of this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry could be scientists who developed materials with spongelike holes on the nanoscale. One of these materials -- called MOF-210 -- is so porous that if you took a cubic centimeter of it and laid all the internal surfaces out flat, it would cover almost five basketball courts.
The MOF in MOF-210 stands for metal organic framework. These materials are made by creating a lattice of metal ions connected with organic "linker" molecules. The resulting cagelike structure can hold large amounts of liquid or gas. Omar Yaghi, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the leaders in the field of metal organic frameworks (as well as other materials that can be made by linking molecular building blocks together in intricate structures). He has already demonstrated how one of his materials can suck drinkable water out of the desert air. Metal organic frameworks also show promise for extracting heat-trapping carbon dioxide from exhaust and storing dangerous gases.
Chemistry of the Stars
Chemistry doesn't just happen down on Earth. In dusty clouds in far-flung galaxies, molecules come together or break apart. The Nobel Prize this year could go to a scientist who has spent her career with a foot in both chemistry and astronomy. Ewine van Dishoeck, a Dutch astrochemist, has helped transform the field from simply cataloguing the molecules in space to building an understanding of how these molecules interact with each other and their environment. The scientists' goal is to understand the origins of stars and planets -- and ultimately the cosmic origins of life's building blocks as well.
Powerful Tools to Study DNA
Police arrive at a grisly crime scene. They take samples of blood and other bodily fluids and send them to a lab for analysis. Later in court, the prosecution reveals that the DNA in the blood from the crime scene matches the DNA of the suspect on trial. Such a sequence of events is familiar to anyone who watches crime dramas on TV or follows real-life trials.
The Nobel Prize in chemistry this year may recognize scientists whose work made such scenes possible. In the 1970s, Edwin Southern, a British scientist, developed a technique called Southern blotting that could detect specific sequences of DNA in samples that contained an organism's whole genome. Fellow Brit Alec Jeffreys used the technique to develop DNA fingerprinting, which can distinguish individuals from each other.
The applications of the technologies go far beyond crime. They have helped scientists study inherited diseases, human origins and migrations, the genetic diversity of endangered species, and more.
For more of Inside Science's coverage of the 2019 Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry, please visit our Nobel coverage page.