The first Monday of October is an annual celebration for the scientific community, as it is the day when the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine honors some of the greatest advances and discoveries in life sciences. Last year, William G. Kaelin, Peter J. Ratcliffe, and Gregg L. Semenza jointly won the honor for their “discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability” (nobelprize.org, 2020). This year, which research area will get the highest level of recognition and who is in the running for the prestigious prize? Here, we list some potential candidates for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2020.
Edwin Southern and Alec Jeffreys: Southern blot and DNA fingerprinting
If you have ever studied molecular biology, you would recognize the work of Edwin Southern, an English molecular biologist. He is well known for being the father of Southern blot, a method that can detect specific DNA sequences in samples. This powerful technique is a staple of molecular biology laboratory procedures still used today (Journal of Molecular Biology, 1975). Based on Southern’s invention in 1970s, Alec Jeffreys went further and developed DNA fingerprinting, a technique that can identify an individual’s specific DNA characteristics (Nature, 1985). Thereafter, their pioneering work has revolutionized human genetics and forensic diagnostics, along with winning the pair a Lasker Award in 2005 (Lasker Foundation, 2005). This prestigious medical award has gained a reputation as “America's Nobel”, and, for a good reason. In the past two decades, 32 Lasker recipients went on to be announced as Nobel Prize winners. Therefore, Edwin Southern and Alec Jeffreys are considered strong contenders in the running for the Nobel Prize 2020, in either chemistry or physiology/medicine.
Kazutoshi Mori and Peter Walter: unfolded protein response
In 1993, Mori and Walter independently uncovered mutations in the gene encoding ire-1 (inositol requiring enzyme 1), laying the foundation for the discovery of the unfolded protein response (UPR) of the endoplasmic reticulum. UPR is regarded as a way of cellular stress response, which is activated by accumulation of unfolded or misfolded proteins in the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum and has been proved to be related to a wide range of neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and Huntington's disease (BBC, 2013). Due to the extraordinary significance of UPR in the investigations of disease causes and corresponding treatments, Mori and Walter received the Canada Gairdner International Award in 2009 and started to be considered potential Nobel winners (one fourth of Gairdner laureates are also Nobel winners). 5 years later, they shared the Lasker award 2014 for their "discoveries concerning the unfolded protein response, an intracellular quality-control system that detects harmful misfolded proteins in the endoplasmic reticulum and signals the nucleus to carry out corrective measures (Lasker, 2014a)." Could UPR also win them a Nobel Prize this year? We will just have to wait and find out.
Mary-Claire King and Mark Skolnick: hereditary breast cancer
King is an American geneticist who studies human genetic heterogeneity and complex traits. Her contributions to genetics include revealing the 99% genetic similarity between humans and chimpanzees, as well as identifying the hereditary breast cancer gene BRCA1, a tumor suppressor gene responsible for repairing damaged DNA. Breast cancer may occur if the gene mutates. In 2002, Mary was recognized as one of the 50 most important women in science (Discover, 2002). 12 years after that, she won the Lasker Award in medical science for her discovery of the hereditary breast cancer related gene BRCA1 (Lasker, 2014b). It’s worth noting that a research team lead by Mark Skolnick from University of Utah successfully cloned BRCA1 in 1994, four years after Mary’s discovery of the gene. So, it’s highly likely that Mark Skolnick will also receive his moment of glory if BRCA1 wins the Nobel Prize this year.
Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Feng Zhang: CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing
CRISPR is currently one of the hottest research areas in life science and medicine. Known as the “Magic Scissor”, CRISPR/Cas9 system can modify the genomes (cut on target DNA) of living organisms by delivering the Cas9 nuclease complexed with a synthetic guide RNA, which is revolutionary for molecular biology research and medicine (Nature Biotechnology, 2015). This fabulous technology was initially described by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who collaboratively published the 1st CRISPR/Cas9 paper in 2012 (Science, 2012). However, it was Feng Zhang, a Chinese-American biochemist, who adapted CRISPR-Cas9 for gene editing in mammalian cells one year later (Science, 2013). While CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing has been rapidly applied to basic biological researches and treatments of diseases, a few more years may be needed before it is recognized by the Nobel committee, since the Nobel Prize is usually awarded to achievements made at least one decade ago.
As the most prestigious award available in natural science, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine attracts every generation of researchers to reach scientific peaks and devote their lives in order to improve our understanding of the nature of life. The biologists mentioned above all have made great contributions to both the science community and human society, however, who do you think will win the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine?
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Who will win the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine 2020?
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