A trio of researchers won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for using genetic change and Darwin’s principle of natural selection to develop new proteins for use in many parts of daily life.
Frances H Arnold and George P Smith of the United States and Gregory P Winter of Britain have advanced the development of proteins – “life’s chemical tools” – and harnessed the power of evolution, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
Their techniques could lead to a greener chemicals industry, new materials, sustainable biofuels, and also help “mitigate disease and save lives,” the Nobel organizers said on Twitter.
“It really, really represents what Alfred Nobel wanted, namely to give an award to those who make the most benefit to mankind, this is really true with these (laureates),” Heiner Linke, a co-opted member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, told dpa.
Nobel, a Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, endowed the chemistry prize along with awards in medicine, physics, literature and peace.
Arnold, the fifth woman to receive a chemistry Nobel since 1901, received half of the prize money. Her work on enzymes – proteins that catalyse chemical reactions – has helped in the more environmentally-friendly manufacture of pharmaceuticals and the production of renewable fuels.
“We are happy about it, we all would like to see more women (laureates), more diversity generally, this is also about geography and other factors and as the composition of scientists looking back 20 or 30 years has changed. This will hopefully have an effect on the prize,” Linke said.
Arnold’s research has led to proteins that “can replace previous toxic catalysts in industrial processes” and “has a very huge significance,” said Sara Snogerup Linse, a professor of physical chemistry and member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
Smith and Winter were awarded the other half of the prize for their work on “phage display” – referring to the use of viruses and bacteria to create new proteins, the Academy said.
Their research has helped produce antibodies that can neutralize toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer, with applications that include new drugs against rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.
The first was approved in 2002 and used for rheumatoid arthritis, the Academy said.
Experts who briefed the Academy estimated that 11 of the 15 most-sold drugs in the world were produced with these techniques, Linke said. “So there is a huge impact.”
The idea for his research came “from many sources,” Smith said after the announcement.
“I actually wasn’t surprised that people would catch on to it because it was something that was a way of thinking that was very much in the air at the time,” he said in a call with the Nobel website.
“I’ve been retired for three years .. I don’t know what this will mean for my life,” he said.
The three laureates’ work has contributed to “safer, greener and antibody drugs with better efficiency and less side effects,” said Goran K Hansson, permanent secretary of the Academy.
Hansson said Arnold and her co-laureates Smith and Winter had been informed of the Academy’s decision and were “all delighted.”
The chemistry prize is the third of the 2018 Nobel Prize awards to be announced this week after physics and medicine. The awards are each worth 9 million kronor (1 million dollars) this year.