It is time for STAT’s 2022 Nobel Prize predictions

September 30, 2022

We reside in a time the place the speed of medical and superlative scientific advances is accelerating — by greater than 1,300% since 1985, in line with one current estimate. With so many “unprecedented,” “transformative” breakthroughs taking place, forecasting which one can be awarded prime analysis honors isn’t getting any simpler. However with the naming of this yr’s Nobels quick approaching — the medication award can be introduced on Oct. 3, physics on Oct. 4, chemistry on Oct. 5 — prize prognosticating for the World Collection of Science is as soon as once more in full swing.

Public polls, tallies of different elite awards, and journal citations have helped betting-minded folks acquire the names of who’s most probably within the operating. The shortlist contains researchers who elucidated how cells make vitality, those that found the chemical chatter of micro organism, lots of the good minds who shepherded us into the “period of the genome,” and most prominently, the pioneers behind the mRNA Covid vaccines.

How Nobels are determined is a matter of grave secrecy — data of who nominated and voted for whom are sealed for 50 years — making forecasting new winners much more of a problem. Nonetheless, some specialists have developed programs that do a good job.


David Pendlebury of Clarivate Analytics seems at how usually a scientist’s key papers are cited by friends and awarded so-called predictive prizes just like the Lasker or Gairdner awards. Annually he comes up with a gaggle of “Quotation Laureates,” and since 2002, 64 of his picks have gone on to obtain a Nobel Prize.

Utilizing that technique, Pendlebury thinks the medication Nobel might go to the researchers who found that totally different sorts of malformed protein aggregates, in several cell varieties, underlie numerous neurological illnesses together with Parkinson’s, ALS, and frontotemporal dementia. Virginia Man-Yee Lee of the College of Pennsylvania printed a seminal Science paper in 2006, which has now been cited greater than 4,000 instances. When Pendlebury dug into these citations, he seen that researchers virtually at all times talked about that paper in tandem with a really related however a lot lower-profile research printed a couple of months later by Masato Hasegawa of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science.


“This phenomenon of simultaneous impartial discovery is quite common in science, greater than I feel folks perceive,” Pendlebury instructed STAT. “So the citations are likely to go to the primary mover, however they’re actually a pair. And since their papers, the sector has blossomed in lots of instructions, as a result of it was a giant step ahead for looking for therapies for these sorts of illnesses.”

For related causes, Pendlebury additionally has his eyes on two scientists who made groundbreaking discoveries concerning the genetic foundation of illness: Mary-Claire King of the College of Washington for uncovering the function of mutations within the BRCA genes in breast and ovarian cancers, which revolutionized most cancers screening, and Stuart Orkin of Harvard Medical Faculty for figuring out the genetic adjustments behind the varied sorts of thalassemia — resulting in promising new gene-based therapies for inherited blood problems.

One other factor that Pendlebury takes under consideration in his predictions is periodicity. The committees are likely to take turns rewarding totally different disciplines; neuroscience, most cancers, or infectious-disease discoveries win each decade or so. For the medication prize, periodicity additionally reveals up between discoveries of fundamental molecular biology and ones that result in folks really being handled or cured of the issues that ail them.

Prior to now decade, the medication prize has extra instances than not gone again to fundamentals. In 2013, it went to intra-cell transportation, in 2016 to the method of mobile self-destruction, in 2017 to the genetic clocks that management circadian rhythms, in 2019 to how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability, and final yr to how cells sense temperature and contact. Prizes with a extra scientific focus have been awarded in 2015, (roundworm and malaria remedy), 2018 (immuno-oncolgy), and 2020 (hepatitis C).

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That’s only one purpose why most cancers biologist Jason Sheltzer of the Yale Faculty of Medication is so bullish on this yr’s medication prize going to Katalin Karikó of BioNTech and Drew Weissman of Penn Medication for taking messenger RNA, or mRNA, on a 40-year journey from an obscure nook of cell biology to a pandemic-halting vaccine know-how. “It’s such a radical change in vaccine know-how, at this level billions of doses have been given, and it has incontrovertibly saved hundreds of thousands of individuals from dying of Covid,” Sheltzer mentioned. “To me, it’s only a slam dunk.”

Sheltzer has been making Nobel predictions on Twitter since 2016 and accurately selected immuno-oncology pioneer James Allison for the 2018 medication prize. His methodology is a little more simple; he tracks winners of seven main science prizes — the Horwitz, Wolf, Albany, Shaw, and Breakthrough Prize, along with the Lasker and Gairdner — as a result of the information present that there’s solely so lengthy the Nobel Committee can ignore individuals who’ve received at the least two. Karikó and Weissman have received 5 of the six. “It’s not a query of if it’ll occur, it’s only a query of when,” he mentioned.”

He’s much less sure concerning the chemistry prize. May David Allis of Rockefeller and Michael Grunstein of UCLA lastly get the decision to Stockholm? They found a method genes are activated — by way of proteins referred to as histones — for which they shared a 2018 Lasker and a 2016 Gruber Prize in genetics. The management of gene expression, in any other case generally known as epigenetics, is a basic course of in cell biology that researchers and business are simply starting to harness to deal with human illness. However the final time epigenetics received the Nobel nod was in 2006, with Roger Kornberg’s win in chemistry for his work unlocking the molecular thriller of how RNA transcripts are assembled.

“It’s been practically 20 years since that subject has been acknowledged with a prize, so you could possibly make the case that it’s very a lot due this yr,” mentioned Sheltzer.

That’s much more true for DNA sequencing, which was final awarded a Nobel in 1980 — to Wally Gilbert and Frederick Sanger for his or her work growing the primary (eponymously named) methodology for figuring out the order of base pairs in nucleic acids. However a lot has occurred within the subject since then, that the slate of worthy sequencing successors is virtually overflowing.

Ought to it go to the scientists who gave us the first-ever draft of the human genome, and in that case, which of them? Tons of of researchers all around the world aided within the effort, which was a feat of engineering and mass manufacturing as a lot as scientific innovation. If the chemistry or medication Nobel committees takes a cue from their physics counterpart, who in 2017 honored the organizers of the worldwide undertaking that found gravitational waves, then the highest contenders would possible be the Human Genome Mission’s cat-herder-in-chief and just lately departed director of the Nationwide Institutes of Well being, Francis Collins, and Eric Lander, whose lab on the Broad Institute churned out a lot of the draft sequence. A 3rd may be Craig Venter, whose competing personal sequencing push at Celera raced the general public effort to a hotly contested draw.

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Maybe a extra deserving trio can be Marvin Caruthers of the College of Colorado, Leroy Hood of the Institute for Techniques Biology, and Michael Hunkapiller, former CEO of DNA-sequencing behemoth Pacific Biosciences. They invented the know-how behind the primary automated sequencers, which powered the Human Genome Mission (and have been Pendlebury’s choose for the chemistry Nobel in 2019).

Or maybe the decision from Stockholm will exit to David Klenerman and Shankar Balasubramanian of the College of Cambridge, who developed the sequencing-by-synthesis know-how that got here after the Human Genome Mission and is now the workhorse of the fashionable sequencing period (and for which they received the 2020 Millennium Expertise Prize and this yr’s Breakthrough Prize in life sciences). More moderen innovations, just like the nanopore sequencing applied sciences which have enabled the development of the primary really full human genomes in the previous few years are additionally within the operating, however most likely an extended shot, regardless of their apparent contributions to each chemistry and medication. That’s as a result of the Nobel committees are likely to tilt towards true trailblazers and away from those that lengthen an preliminary, foundation-laying discovery or perception.

The Human Genome Mission, a perennial matter of dialog amongst Nobel-casters, has impressed much more intrigue than regular this yr, following the shock exit of Eric Lander from his place as White Home science adviser within the wake of office bullying allegations.

Though the uncommon Nobel has been awarded to well-known jerks or kooks — Kary Mullis, the eccentric inventor of PCR, and James Watson, the doubtful co-discoverer of the double-helix construction of DNA (and frequent maker of racist, sexist remarks) come to thoughts — the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which selects the physics and chemistry laureates, and the Nobel Meeting on the Karolinska Institute, which chooses the physiology/medication winner, are likely to avoid controversy.

“It’s exhausting to seek out many examples of a Nobel being awarded to somebody who’s been tremendous controversial,” mentioned Sheltzer.

Amongst Pendlebury’s picks, the one that skirts closest is maybe Stephen Quake of Stanford College and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, who supplied recommendation to He Jiankui, the Chinese language scientist who created the world’s first “CRISPR infants”. Stanford later cleared Quake of any misconduct. Quake has made essential discoveries in microfluidics which led to speedy advances in noninvasive testing and single cell sequencing, and Pendlebury sees him as a favourite for a physics Nobel.

In chemistry, Pendlebury likes one other Stanford College engineer, Zhenan Bao, for her paradigm-shifting work within the subject of semiconducting polymers making stretchable “digital pores and skin.” He’s additionally received his eye on Daniel Nocera at Harvard College for foundational work illuminating the proton-coupled electron switch course of that powers cells, and the staff of Bonnie Bassler from Princeton College and E. Peter Greenberg of the College of Washington for his or her discovery of quorum sensing — a chemical communication system between micro organism.

In addition to citations, prediction prizes, and periodicity, Pendlebury can be taking part in the lengthy recreation. “I pay particular consideration to papers which are 15, 20, 25, 30 years previous, as a result of it normally takes a decade or two for analysis to be chosen by the Nobel Prize Committee,” he mentioned.

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That may complicate issues for one of many main vote-getters in a web based ballot for the chemistry Nobel — John Jumper of the Alphabet-owned firm DeepMind and a 2023 Breakthrough Prize in life sciences winner. His work main the AlphaFold synthetic intelligence program surprised the world two years in the past by primarily fixing one among biology’s most enduring challenges: shortly and precisely predicting the 3D construction of a protein from its amino acid sequence.

That’s why this first-time Nobel forecaster is betting on one other prime vote-getter for the chemistry prize, Carolyn Bertozzi of Stanford College, who has spent a lot of her illustrious profession devising strategies to know an elusive however important class of sugar-coated molecules referred to as glycans discovered on the floor of just about all dwelling cells. She’s been a member of the Nationwide Academy of Sciences since 2005 and received the Wolf prize earlier this yr, in recognition of founding the sector of bioorthogonal chemistry — a time period Bertozzi coined twenty years in the past that refers to reactions scientists can carry out inside dwelling organisms with out interfering with their regular capabilities.

Sticking with dark-horse picks (as a result of, why not), I’m going with Yuk Ming Dennis Lo of the Chinese language College of Hong Kong for the medication prize. In 1997, he reported {that a} rising fetus sheds cell-free DNA into the mom’s blood. Ten years later, he discovered a manner to make use of that DNA to detect the signature abnormalities related to Down syndrome. Collectively, these discoveries revolutionized scientific apply of screening for fetal genetic abnormalities, resulting in the event of non-invasive prenatal testing now utilized by hundreds of thousands of individuals yearly. Lo has solely simply begun to be acknowledged for that work, profitable this yr’s Lasker Award for scientific medical analysis, which was introduced on Wednesday. He additionally based firms based mostly on this identical precept for the early detection of a number of cancers, one among which was acquired by pioneering liquid biopsy big Grail.

Different crowdsourced efforts to foretell Nobel winners aren’t making a return look, together with the March Insanity-style brackets run for a few years by the scientific analysis honors society Sigma Xi. (Final yr noticed Bertozzi lose within the finals to Omar Yaghi and Makoto Fujita, pioneers of metal-organic self-assembling buildings.) Sigma Xi couldn’t be reached for remark, however the change comes amid more and more loud criticism of the Nobel Prizes, for the best way they distort the collaborative nature of the scientific enterprise and overlook a lot of its essential contributors (together with many ladies and folks of colour).

Even Nobel obsessives like Sheltzer admit these arguments have gotten extra compelling. However he likes how, at the least for a couple of days each October, he can rely on scientific discoveries splashing throughout the entrance web page of the New York Occasions and main the hour on the nightly information. “There are wonderful issues taking place within the scientific world proper now, like CRISPR gene modifying and immunotherapy for most cancers, that I feel ought to actually be front-page information way more ceaselessly than they’re,” mentioned Sheltzer. “However I’m glad that the Nobel Prize shines a highlight on them and elevates them into the nationwide consciousness, even when only for a short time frame.”