Nobel 2012: Chemistry

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for their study of how cells interact with their environment. Everyone has heard of various “receptors.” The term has pretty well entered the common lexicon, and much of that is because a large quantity of modern drugs interact with these receptors, called G-protein coupled receptors.

What’s exciting about this work is not that it is a story of how science evolves and deepens over the years, even though it is: from the late 60’s when Lefkowitz enters the picture, through the discovery of the G-proteins (which itself earned Gilman and Rodbell the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine,) through Kobilka’s discovery of the gene that encodes for a particular receptor of interest – the beta-adrenergic receptor. Any of you who are taking beta-blockers for hypertension are tinkering with the function of this receptor on a daily basis. This long-running line of research recently culminated in Kobilka’s recent publication (Nature 469, 175) of the crystal structure of an activated beta-adrenergic receptor. As the Nobel committee so eloquently put it , this was “a molecular masterpiece – the result of decades of research.”

Rather, what is exciting was Kobilka’s observation that the structure of this beta receptor was substantially similar to the rhodopsin detector in the eye. The implication of Kobilka’s work was that the body was able to use similar structures to accomplish widely different tasks and that at least our ability to see shares a common evolutionary root with other wholly internal sensing mechanisms. It has undoubtedly had and will continue to have a great deal of impact on our search for new pharmaceutical therapies but also on our understanding of the complex biomolecular machinery of life.

As amazing as this work is, I can’t help but feel a bit conflicted about this Nobel Prize. Understand that this has nothing to do with the research or the researchers, but rather is about the choices of the Nobel committee. This award feels like an underhanded way of awarding a second Nobel Prize in Physiology. This may be unfair on two counts. First, there is a long track record of biochemistry receiving well-deserved chemistry prizes for chemical research. The classic example of this was Frederick Sanger, who won the 1958 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the structure of proteins, particularly insulin, and then shared the 1980 prize for his work on nucleic acid. The work, while on biological substrates, was clearly well ensconced in the fields of chemical research.  Second, it is undeniable that certain frontiers of science are in the realm of biological systems and that the research that is timely and novel right now will inevitably have some biological bent. What bothers me is that the motivation of the decades of research was not in my mind the chemistry underlying the receptor, but rather the physiology of the receptor’s behavior and its mechanism of action. Further, the capstone piece of work cited by the Nobel committee was the Nature paper mentioned earlier which dealt with the structure of an activated receptor, which calls Watson and Crick’s 1962 Nobel Prize to mind. It is of note that this work received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Many chemists struggle with the “bio-creep” of the prizes, which is probably inevitable and a little healthy.  I will also admit to have given a little friendly joshing to some of my colleagues who have complained about it. But in this particular case, I share the sentiments expressed at Chembark that this was excellent work deserving of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

(Update: Derek Lowe has written a very well thought out post about this topic as well.)

It’s Nobel time again!

More exciting to me and certainly more impactful to humanity than the NCAA, Nobel season is a great time to reflect on major advances in science. I’m going to walk through my top contenders for the Chemistry and Physics Prizes. While I’m interested in all the Nobel prize winners and their work – whether it is in one of the sciences or in literature – the Physics and Chemistry Prizes hold a special appeal to me as a scientist working somewhere between those two fields.

The chemists in the blogosphere generally have a better game on about the odds on the potential future laureates than the physicists. I am particularly intrigued by Chembark and The Curious Wavefunction‘s  predictions. Given a recent shift away from the bio-related topics, this might be a year to bet that way. I thus find myself in agreement with Chembark’s 6-1 odds on Pierre Chambon for nuclear hormone signalling. Moerner’s work on single molecule spectroscopy is also another favorite of mine, for which he won the Wolf Prize in 2008 and the Langmuir Prize in 2009. In Physics, a Wolf Prize is a very strong indicator of soon-to-come Nobel. I’m not sure if this is true for Chemistry or not.

The dark horse in this race, in my opinion, is Allen Bard, the noted electrochemist, for the discovery of electron transfer in biological systems. This would tickle the bio-partisans and recognize the crowning contribution by someone for whom a lifetime achievement award would not be unreasonable. Chembark is quoting 19-1 odds on Bard. I think the chances are higher.

Usually, no one from the physics community handicaps the Physics Nobel race like the chemists do theirs. Poor showing, my fellow physicists!  This year, however, there is a heavyweight contender for the prize. With the exciting results from the Large Hadron Collider, I think that the Nobel Committee will have a hard time ignoring nominations for Peter Higgs (of the eponymous boson) and Francois Englert. The Atlantic has made a case for one of the trio of Hagen, Guralnik, and Kibble, who also published extensively (and a case can be made for independently) on what we now refer to as the Higgs boson. All 5 of these men (and one other, deceased) shared the Sakurai prize for work on the Higgs, so their contribution has been recognized. I will predict that if the Academy presents a medal based on this work, it will be to Higgs and Englert alone. The only thing I see that can be argued against a Higgs win here is the relative recency of the results. The committee, which includes two particle physicists, (Brink and Bergström) might reasonably choose to wait a year to ensure a more thorough analysis of the LHC data.

If they choose to delay on an award for Peter Higgs, the field is fairly wide open. There are several strong contenders in this case. The leading contenders, in my opinion, are Anton Zeilinger, John Clauser, and Alain Aspect for discoveries around quantum entanglement. With Zeilinger’s recent paper in building on his 2007 work on quantum teleportation, its clear that a path exists towards development of a practical quantum communications system. Zeilinger won the Wolf Prize in 2010 for this work.

Last year’s Wolf Prize winners in Physics are also strong contenders. Maximilian Haider, Harald Rose, and Knut Urban received the Wolf Prize in 2011 for their work on aberration-corrected transmission electron microscopy. Bekenstein’s Wolf Prize winning work on the thermodynamics of black holes is certainly worthy of a prize, but I have a hard time seeing that this year.

In any case, October of 2012 is fast approaching. I can’t wait to find out who will get the call from Stockholm.