Nobel awards adapt to challenging times
The winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics are announced during a news conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Oct 6. TT NEWS AGENCY/FREDRIK SANDBERG/REUTERS

Discoveries by science laureates break new ground

The Nobel Prize ceremonies have been scaled back this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Many of the traditional events, such as the grand banquet, have been canceled or moved online and new formats have been adopted to celebrate and pay tribute to this year's laureates.

The Nobel season takes place in October each year, with committees in Sweden and Norway announcing those awarded for outstanding work in the fields of science, literature, peace and economics.

This year, medals and diplomas are being handed to the laureates in their home countries, most likely with the help of embassies or the winners' universities. The recipients will be invited to next year's awards ceremony and banquet.

In the field of science, there were some notable successes this year. Female laureates were celebrated for their achievements, with winners from the United Kingdom standing out against their contemporaries from the United States.

On Oct 7, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for developing a method for genome editing.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement, "Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna have discovered one of gene technology's sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors.

"This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true."

Charpentier, who is French, and Doudna, a US citizen, become the sixth and seventh women to win a Nobel for chemistry, joining the likes of Marie Curie, who won in 1911, and more recently, Frances Arnold, in 2018.

It is also the first time this Nobel Prize has been awarded to an all-female group of laureates.

The path to winning the chemistry award took less than a decade-considered a relatively short period by Nobel standards.

Charpentier, director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Germany and Doudna, a Li Ka Shing Chancellor Chair Professor at the University of California, Berkeley in the US and Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012.

During Charpentier's studies of Streptococcus pyogenes, which is among the bacteria causing the most harm to humanity, she discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of the bacteria's ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, which disarms viruses by cutting their DNA.

The pair collaborated after Charpentier published her discovery in 2011. The scientists went on to successfully recreate the bacteria's genetic scissors in a test tube and simplified the scissors' molecular components, making them easier to use.

Since then, this tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research, and has enabled plant researchers to develop crops that withstand mold, pests and drought.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said that in medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway and the dream of being able to cure inherited diseases is about to be realized. The genetic scissors have taken life sciences into a new era and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.

Speaking from Berlin, Charpentier, 51, told reporters after the award was announced by the academy in Stockholm, the Swedish capital: "Strangely enough, I was told a number of times (that I'd win), but when it happens you're very surprised and you feel that it's not real. But obviously it's real, so I have to get used to it now."

Doudna told The Associated Press, "My greatest hope is that it is used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind."

On being one of the first two women to share the prize, Charpentier said she hoped it would send a positive message to young girls who want to pursue a career in science.

Doudna said in an interview with UC Berkeley that she grew up being told "girls don't do science", adding that fortunately she ignored this.

"It really speaks to the fact that I think for many women there is a feeling that no matter what they do, their work will never be recognized the way it would be if they were a man. And this recognition today, I think just, you know, refutes that."

Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said: "There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionized basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to groundbreaking new medical treatments."

However, although CRISPR/Cas9 had been tipped for the Chemistry prize, there were concerns that the technology conferred "Godlike powers" on scientists and could be misused-for example, to create "designer babies".

An unusual way

On Oct 6, Roger Penrose from the UK, Reinhard Genzel from Germany, and Andrea Ghez from the US won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discoveries on the black hole.

Penrose, Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and a contemporary of the late UK theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, was awarded 50 percent of the prize money of 10 million Swedish krona ($1.14 million) for his work on using mathematics to prove that black holes are a direct consequence of Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity.

The remainder of the prize money went to Genzel and Ghez for discovering that an invisible and extremely heavy object governs the orbits of stars at the center of our galaxy.

Penrose, 89, told reporters, "It was an extreme honor and great pleasure to hear the news this morning in a slightly unusual way-I had to get out of my shower to hear it."

Ghez, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles, is only the fourth woman awarded the Physics prize, after Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963 and Donna Strickland in 2018.

She said she hoped her win would inspire other women to enter the fields of astronomy and astrophysics.

Asked about the moment of scientific discovery, Ghez said her first thought was doubt.

"You have to prove to yourself that what you are really seeing is what you think you are seeing. So, both doubt and excitement," the 55-year-old said in a phone call with the committee after receiving the award. "It's that feeling of being at the frontier of research when you have to always question what you are seeing."

Genzel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, told Reuters Television he was on a Zoom call with colleagues when the phone rang.

"Just like in the movies, a voice said: 'This is Stockholm'," the 68-year-old said, adding that he "cried a little bit".

In 1915, Einstein predicted in his Theory of General Relativity that space and time could be warped by the force of gravity. However, he did not actually believe in black holes, and finding a way to prove their existence baffled scientists for another 50 years.

In a seminal paper in 1965, Penrose proved that black holes can really form-describing them in detail and stating that, at their center, there is a singularity where time and space cease to exist.

Asked by Reuters about the biggest riddle concerning black holes, Penrose said, "The greatest puzzle is the singularities, because we don't know what to do with them-you see, the black holes shield us from the singularities."

Speaking from Oxford, he told reporters, "As the matter collapses into the middle, the densities get larger and larger and they just exceed everything you can think of."

For more than a decade, starting in the early 1990s, Genzel and Ghez individually led research into Sagittarius A*, a region at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Through observing the unusual orbits of stars, they were able to infer the existence of a gigantic object in the center of the galaxy. Current scientific consensus holds that this object is a supermassive black hole.

David Haviland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said: "The discoveries of this year's laureates have broken new ground in the study of compact and supermassive objects, but these exotic objects still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research. Not only questions about their inner structure, but also questions about how to test our theory of gravity under the extreme conditions in the immediate vicinity of a black hole."

Charles Rice of Rockefeller University (right), one of three scientists awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is seen in a file photo with a student. ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY/JOHN ABBOTT/HANDOUT/REUTERS

Work spans decades

On Oct 5, three scientists-two US citizens and a Briton-won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus.

The work by Harvey Alter and Charles Rice from the US, and Michael Houghton from the UK, spanned decades and helped limit the spread of the fatal disease and to develop drugs to cure it.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 71 million people worldwide live with hepatitis C, which can cause major liver complications and, in some cases, death.

The scientists' discoveries mean there is now a chance of eradicating the hepatitis C virus.

Rice, 68, told reporters, "To go from basically the beginning part of this discovery to when it (the infection) can be successfully treated-this is kind of a rare treat for a basic scientist."

Advances in gene sequencing would make it possible for researchers to achieve "spectacular" progress toward developing treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, Rice said.

In the 1970s, Alter demonstrated that some people who received blood transfusions developed cases of hepatitis that were not caused by the hepatitis A or B viruses, suggesting that another infectious agent was to blame.

In the mid-1980s, a team led by Houghton-then working for the pharmaceuticals company Chiron-created a clone of a new virus from fragments found in the blood of an infected chimpanzee.

The disease it causes was named hepatitis C. Its identification made it possible to develop tests to screen blood bank supplies and greatly reduce the spread of the disease, which can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer.

The Nobel Committee said: "The Nobel laureates' discovery of the hepatitis C virus is a landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases. Thanks to their discovery, highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are now available and these have essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health".

Ulf Danielsson, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, speaks as the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics are announced in Stockholm, Sweden, on Oct 6. FTT NEWS AGENCY/FREDRIK SANDBERG/REUTERS
Emmanuelle Charpentier holds a puppet in Berlin, Germany, after jointly winning this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a method for genome editing. FABRIZIO BENSCH/REUTERS
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