Winning a Nobel Prize is widely regarded as the highest professional recognition a scientist can achieve. Alfred Nobel’s will established prizes in the scientific disciplines of chemistry, physics and medicine, and directed that they be awarded annually to those whose work was deemed to “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Bengt Norden, Ph.D., a member of the Nobel committee in chemistry from 1995 to 2004, elaborated on the selection criteria for the chemistry prize, stating that the emphasis is on discoveries that have had “a substantial impact on the field of chemistry” and a “richness of consequences.”
The research honored by the Nobel committees this week in medicine and chemistry truly embodies that vision of benefiting humankind with a richness of consequences. While some Nobel-winning science, though groundbreaking within its sub-field, does not have immediate commercial applications, the work of this year’s awardees has clear utility and impacts for a large population of patients and consumers.
2019 medicine Nobel research fuels drug discovery efforts
(Excerpted with permission from an article published in Chemical & Engineering News on October 8, 2019.)
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine often goes to research that has inspired or is on the cusp of spawning therapeutics, and the 2019 prize, awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza, is no exception.
The three researchers are credited with figuring out the intricate details of how our bodies sense oxygen—and Semenza tells C&EN that pharmaceutical and biotech firms are eagerly developing medicines that target different parts of this mechanism, especially to treat diseases like cancer and anemia.
At the center of this oxygen-sensing system is a transcription factor called HIF-1α, which Semenza discovered in 1991. Cancer cells hijack the mechanism by which this transcription factor boosts oxygen production in times of need to bring oxygen and nutrients to support their growth. This makes HIF-1α an exciting but challenging drug target. The published work of these researchers has been cited more than 150,000 times, proving its foundational importance. Industry and academic researchers have filed nearly 2,500 patents since 2000 for small molecule inhibitors of HIF-1α, and drugs for kidney cancer targeting another member of the HIF family, HIF-2, are also in development.
For more details on this research, and key organizations developing treatments based on the work, see the full article.
Winners of 2019 chemistry Nobel catalyzed a consumer electronics revolution
This year, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly recognized John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for the development of lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries have significantly transformed many aspects of our everyday lives thanks to these scientists’ efforts. Cell phones, tablets, cameras, medical devices, smart watches, toys and so many other consumer and industrial goods available today are all powered with lithium technology. Lithium-ion batteries have high commercial appeal because they are lighter, last longer and have greener energy output when compared to traditional lead acid batteries. They have also played a critical role in the emergence of electric vehicles and solar power systems.
“The impact of these scientists’ work cannot be overstated, as evidenced by the fact that their collective publications have been cited by other scientists more than 35,000 times,” notes Gilles Georges, Chief Scientific Officer of CAS. “The progress of lithium-ion battery technology since Whittingham’s foundational work demonstrates the incremental nature of innovation, with each progressive discovery building on the work of scientists that came before them.”
The initial work by Whittingham, first published in the late 1970s, explored ion intercalation (lithium ion with TiS2) resulting in an energy-dense material useful for a battery cathode. Goodenough and Yoshino advanced the technology with the introduction of different electrode materials that enabled development of batteries that were higher potential, effectively rechargeable, more energy dense and more affordable. A significant development from Goodenough utilized LiFePO4 (triphylite) as an alternative cathode material. It was more abundant and thermally stable making it a viable option for large-scale devices (car batteries, energy storage, etc.) and triggering a proliferation of patent applications.
This sequence of discoveries, along with many others along the way, were critical to advancing the original basic research on lithium-ion chemistry to a commercializable technology. In many ways, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of the long-term impact of this work. Battery technology is continuing to evolve on an almost daily basis. However, with the market size for wearable technologies estimated to reach $50 billion USD by 2022, there is no question that the work of these Nobel Laureates certainly has had a “richness of consequences” across a wide range of industries.
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