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October 3, 2018

Meet the 2018 Nobel laureates in chemistry, who transformed autoimmune and cancer treatments

Daily Briefing

    Three scientists on Wednesday received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for applying evolutionary principles to the field to produce new proteins that spurred the development of treatments for autoimmune diseases and cancer.

    Meet the MD Anderson Cancer Center researcher who just won a Nobel Prize in medicine

    The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize to Frances Arnold of the California Institute of Technology, George Smith of University of Missouri in Columbia, and Gregory Winter of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain.

    The academy in a release said this year's winners "have been inspired by the power of evolution and used the same principles—genetic change and selection—to develop proteins that solve mankind's chemical problems."

    Research details

    According to the Washington Post's "Speaking of Science," the scientists have harnessed the principles of evolution to create antibodies, which are the molecules immune cells use to identify other cells; enzymes, which are the molecules involved in speeding chemical reactions; and other biological molecules. The enzymes the researchers helped produce "are used to manufacture everything from biofuels to pharmaceuticals," the academy said.

    Arnold will receive half of the $1 million Nobel Prize for her work on developing new enzymes using evolutionary principles. Claes Gustafsson, chair of Nobel Chemistry Committee, said Arnold applied the "principles of Darwin in the test tube" by exposing enzymes to random point mutations and then selectively breeding the enzymes to build stronger versions. Arnold over the years refined her method, and researchers now commonly use her method to develop new enzymes.

    Sara Snogerup Linse, a member of the Nobel Chemistry Committee, said Arnold's discovery has had applications in brain imaging and drug development.

    Smith and Winter will share the remainder of the prize for developing a process for evolving new proteins called bacteriophage. The process involves using a virus to infect bacteria to generate new proteins. Winter applied the method to steer the evolution of antibodies in an effort to develop more effective medical treatments.

    The proteins have been used to create a myriad of products, including AbbVie's blockbuster drug Humira. Researchers have used bacteriophage to develop antibodies to counteract autoimmune diseases and metastatic cancer, and to neutralize toxins, the academy said (Dickson/Hirschler, Reuters, 10/3; Sugden, Wall Street Journal, 10/3; Sullivan, NPR, 10/3; Guarino, "Speaking of Science," Washington Post, 10/3; Nobel Prize release, 10/3). 

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