Nine Nobel Prize Predictions for 2021

These significant advancements could win the Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine, physics and chemistry.
Image of flowers, with "2021 Nobel Prize" written out, the Zero is a medal.
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Copyright American Institute of Physics

Inside Science Staff

(Inside Science) -- Making predictions for the Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine, physics and chemistry has become an annual pastime at Inside Science. We've had some successful predictions in prior years -- for example, in 2018 we pointed to the research about cancer immunotherapy that won that year's prize for physiology or medicine. We also included lithium-ion batteries in our 2018 list, which went on to win the 2019 chemistry prize. Then, in 2019 we correctly picked exoplanets for the physics prize. This year we've searched for hints hidden in data -- as well as relied on our nonscientific intuitions -- to make our nine best predictions for the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prizes.

To check out the research we highlighted last year that didn't win but may be recognized this year, please read our 2020 predictions.

The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine -- Announced Oct. 4

Harnessing the power of mRNA

The scientists: Katalin Kariko, BioNTech and University of Pennsylvania, and Drew Weissman, University of Pennsylvania

The technique of using messenger RNA -- strands of information sent by DNA to protein-making ribosomes -- as an immunization tool first appeared in a 2005 paper that showed sending specific mRNA strands into cells could prompt them to make pathogen-attacking proteins they otherwise wouldn't. Kariko had been working on the project since the '90s, but when she and Weissman published their findings, they didn't receive much press. Fast forward 15 years, and their continued work, in addition to that done by the companies BioNTech and Moderna, has famously changed the frontiers of vaccination forever.

It's thanks to their groundbreaking research that companies were able to roll out mRNA vaccines so quickly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Already this year, Weissman and Kariko have shared major awards including the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, the largest in a collection of awards often called "America's Nobels" because so many of their winners have gone on to become laureates.

The heritability of breast cancer

The scientist: Mary-Claire King, University of Washington

In the early 1970s, cancer research was primarily focused on examining theories of viral infection. King dedicated herself to investigating her theory that most breast cancers are caused instead by inherited genetic mutations. Using a mathematical model and a large dataset from the National Cancer Institute, she was able to demonstrate overwhelming evidence for a breast cancer trait that could be passed from parents to their children.

In 1990, King was finally able to identify the specific gene responsible for heritable breast cancer as BRCA1, a tumor-suppressing gene located on chromosome 17. Her body of research on BRCA1 is directly responsible for the in-depth screening and testing tools that have allowed physicians to spot and prevent breast and ovarian cancer in so many women.

In 2016, King won the National Medal of Science for her work on BRCA1. With the Nobel Committee's history of overlooking women (of more than 600 prizes in the sciences, just 24 have gone to women), awarding King would be a small step toward more equitable recognition in the sciences.

The two-pronged organization of the immune system

The scientists: Max D. Cooper, Emory University School of Medicine, and Jacques Miller, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

The immune system relies primarily on immune cells known as lymphocytes, white blood cells made in the bone marrow and thymus as humans age. These cells spread throughout the blood and lymph tissue of the body. Early in their careers, Cooper and Miller both worked to tease apart the genesis and function of immune cells in animals. Over time, they found that eliminating certain organs during development seemed to hamper only part of the immune system.

Studying chickens in the early 1960s, Cooper discovered that animals without a saclike specialized organ in birds, known as the bursa of Fabricus, were unable to produce antibodies but could still reject foreign bodies such as a skin graft. By comparison, chickens with a bursa but without a thymus -- the organ already known to produce immune cells in animals -- made antibodies as normal but could not reject applied skin grafts.

Building upon previous knowledge from Miller's studies, Cooper published the first paper that proposed a two-part immune system composed of two types of lymphocytes: antibody-producing B-cells and response-mediating T-cells. This discovery revolutionized cell immunology, paving the way for nearly all new cancer treatments of the last decades, including burgeoning therapies such as checkpoint inhibitors and CAR T-cell therapy.

The sleeper pick: Anthony Fauci, National Institutes of Health

Whispers abound that Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and leader of America's vaccine efforts, could be handed the Nobel next week for his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. He'd be a pretty nonstandard winner, but, then again, it's been a nonstandard year and a half.


The Nobel Prize in physics -- Announced Oct. 5

Quantum information

The scientists: Alain Aspect, the Institut d'Optique, John Clauser, J.F. Clauser and Assoc., and Anton Zeilinger, University of Vienna

There's a buzz around quantum information technology these days, with many experts predicting the field is on the cusp of big and exciting developments. That could mean a quantum computer that finally solves a real-world problem faster than a conventional computer ever could. But the concepts behind this emerging technology could also lead to more sensitive medical diagnostic tools or more widespread secure communications networks.

We've predicted a Nobel Prize for quantum information in the past, including recognition of an international trio of scientists: Alain Aspect, John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger. The three physicists pioneered early experiments that showed quantum particles can be linked, or entangled, such that the random behavior of one is tied to the behavior of the others much more strongly than seems intuitively possible. Quantum entanglement lies at the heart of many of the latest quantum tech advances, so this year the Nobel Committee may choose to shine the spotlight on it.

Other deserving quantum researchers who may get the Nobel nod include Peter Shor, a mathematician who in 1994 showed how a quantum computer might break a standard encryption method, and Gilles Brassard and Charles Bennett, whose research on quantum-based encryption might help save the day should an encryption-breaking quantum computer ever come to pass.


The scientists: John Pendry, Imperial College London, and David Smith, Duke University

A chunk of gold displays certain iconic properties, including its shininess and golden hue. But it turns out these traits can be changed. If scientists arrange the atoms of gold in special patterns, they can make the metal look red or green or otherwise interact with light in ways that don't happen in nature. The gold becomes an example of a metamaterial -- a material with unusual and artificially designed properties.

The Nobel Prize this year may recognize leaders from the field of metamaterials. One of the top candidates may be John Pendry, who proposed that metamaterials could make real-life "invisibility cloaks."

But the potential uses for metamaterials go far beyond such Harry Potter-like applications. They may help further miniaturize electrical and optical devices, for example, or enable engineers to devise more efficient ways to harvest energy from the sun. Metamaterials could also interact with sound or heat in seemingly impossible ways.

David Smith is another top contender for any prize recognizing metamaterials research. One of his first papers on the subject in 2000 was initially rejected from the journal Physical Review Letters, he said, with the editors writing that it did not seem important enough to publish. Much has changed in the ensuing decades. A Nobel Prize could be a fitting reminder of how much the perceptions of these novel materials have changed.

Slow light

The scientist: Lene Hau, Harvard University

Our predicted winners for the physics Nobel skew male, reflecting a trend that's also evident in the cadre of laureates to date. A potential winner who could buck the trend is Lene Hau, a leading physicist whose teams have slowed light to about 40 mph, and even stopped it completely. The process involves gases of supercold sodium atoms and a couple of lasers, one that sends a light pulse through the gas while the other one controls the way the gas interacts with the light. In one case, the researchers were able to halt the light and store the information it possessed in the sodium atoms. Later, they could convert the information back to light.

The ability to transfer information from light to matter and back again could also be useful in the aforementioned field of quantum information technology.


The Nobel Prize in chemistry -- Announced Oct. 6

Sequencing genomes faster and more cheaply

The scientists: Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman, University of Cambridge

The DNA of living organisms contains troves of information about how these organisms evolved, the functions of the genes within them, and whether they have a genetic disease. But the extent to which researchers can use this information depends on whether they can access it efficiently. Twenty years ago, it took a decade and cost a billion dollars to sequence a single human genome. The 2021 Nobel Prize in chemistry might acknowledge the scientists whose innovations made it possible to complete the process in a day for about $1,000. That accelerated process makes new applications of the technology possible, including diagnosing and treating cancer and other diseases, as well as sequencing the RNA from COVID-19 to track the spread of variants around the world.

DNA consists of two intertwined chains of sugars and phosphates with a nucleotide base attached to each sugar. There are four possible bases -- adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine -- and each base is attached to one on the other chain -- adenine with thymine, and cytosine with guanine. To sequence DNA, scientists need to determine the order in which these base pairs appear. Part of what makes this difficult to do is that each gene contains anywhere from tens of thousands to several million base pairs, and the entire human genome contains 3.2 billion.

Balasubramanian and Klenerman, two chemists, devised a technology for quickly analyzing billions of fragments of DNA at the same time. Their work won them the 2020 Millennium Technology Prize. Three of the prize's nine past winners have later won Nobel Prizes.

Conducting chemistry in living organisms

The scientist: Carolyn Bertozzi, Stanford University

Carolyn Bertozzi, a chemist, is known for inventing ways to chemically modify molecules in living organisms or cells without damaging them. Bertozzi has named these reactions "bioorthogonal chemistry," or chemistry that doesn't interact with biology. These reactions can help researchers identify drug targets and label cells for imaging. And they might win her the 2021 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Before bioorthogonal chemistry, scientists knew very little about the sugar molecules that coat our cells. Bertozzi has used bioorthogonal chemistry to study these sugars, and scientists now know that the sugar coatings shape proteins, guide white blood cells, aid cell signaling and perform other vital tasks. They also determine your blood type. Bertozzi captured the first images of these sugars (on zebrafish).

A particular type of sugar, called sialic acid, is more prominent on cancer cells than normal cells, and for a long time, scientists weren't sure why. Bertozzi discovered that these sugars hide the cancer cells from immune cells. Immune cells detect and destroy cancer cells, but when they come across a cancer cell coated with sialic acid, the message they receive is "these are not the cells you're looking for." Bertozzi's research team found a way to remove sialic acid, which could enable the immune system to identify the cancer cells. Her work has also led to ways to test for tuberculosis, attach drugs to antibodies to fight tumors and diagnose and treat other diseases. 

Free radicals, antioxidants and human health

The scientist: Barry Halliwell, National University of Singapore

Our bodies need a balance of free radicals, which are oxygen-containing molecules that react easily with other molecules, and the antioxidants that react with them. Fifty years ago, the scientific consensus was that free radicals were bad and antioxidants were good. Halliwell, a biochemist, is credited with spearheading the effort to better understand free radicals and antioxidants, showing that these molecules and their relationship with organisms is more complex.

We naturally produce free radicals and antioxidants, but they also are introduced by external sources. Free radicals enter our bodies when we breathe in pollution and cigarette smoke or absorb sunlight. Antioxidants are found in fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Free radicals are necessary for survival, serving a range of functions from destroying pathogens and tumors to controlling blood flow and neural activity. But because free radicals have an unpaired electron, they also steal electrons from cells in our bodies, causing damage that is thought to lead to a wide range of diseases. Antioxidants can lend electrons to free radicals, neutralizing them so they no longer react with cells.

Halliwell's research has helped identify exactly what sorts of damage free radicals cause, and how free radicals and antioxidants are connected to brain diseases, including Alzheimer's and dementia. He has also studied which antioxidants in the human diet are most important, why antioxidant supplements appear to be largely ineffective, and the development of new antioxidants.


For more of Inside Science's coverage of the 2021 Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine, physics and chemistry, please visit our Nobel coverage page.