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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Smell the Vibrations | Main | The Horse Latitudes »

September 27, 2006

Nobel Fever Is Upon Us

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Posted by Derek

As we move into October, we enter what scientists know as Nobel Season. The Chemistry prize will be announced next Wednesday, so it's time for the annual sport of figuring out who will get it. For those keeping score at home, here's the list of previous winners.

Last year I looked around for a betting market, but the action was pretty thin. I haven't detected any great amounts of money hitting the table this year, either, but Thomson ISI does have their poll going again. But it's next to useless, as far as I can tell, because I don't see any of their listed choices as front-runners for the award this year. (Nature's Sceptical Chymist blog agrees).

For example, I have nothing against Dave Evans and Steve Ley, who are both top-rank synthetic organic chemists. But if they're on the list in that category, there are several others who should be, too - not that I think it's necessarily going to be a synthetic organic year. And it wouldn't surprise me to see Stuart Schreiber eventually win a Nobel, but I think the committee can safely wait on that one, too, since his resume is still lengthening nicely. And as for Tobin Marks, it would surprise me to see another organometallic-themed award right after last year's. No, if Thomson's site had a secure connection to put my credit card down on a bet, I'd take the field rather than their choices and feel very happy about it.

Over at the Endless Frontier, Paul Bracher has his money down on either the green fluorescent protein folks (Tsien et al) or perennial pick George Whitesides. Keep in mind, though, that he works for Whitesides, so he may not have the most objective opinion there. I wouldn't object to a win for him, though, but I'd like to see how the committee would phrase it - the traditional line on a Whitesides pick is that he's contributed to too many areas to pin down. More Nobels have gone to hedgehogs than to foxes.

The green fluorescent protein suggestion is a good one, though. And perhaps this will be the year that the committee recognizes RNA interference, which could land in the chemistry award as easily as anywhere else. My runner-up to those suggestions is nanoscale structures (Stoddart et al.), but I have that pick running substantially behind the other two. That's mainly because the other two have demonstrated some real-world utility, but hey, fullerenes. Add your own picks in the comment section, and let's see who calls it.

Comments (26) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. wlm on September 27, 2006 9:34 PM writes...

How about Dick Holm and Helmut Beinert for work on iron-sulfur clusters?

And for physiology/medicine, I think Carl Woese should get it for rRNA phylogeny.

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2. Ashutosh on September 27, 2006 10:52 PM writes...

The problem with synthesis of any kind, as you pointed out, is that there are many who would deserve a prize, unless they were awarding one for sheer quantity. That's why I think Nicolaou may never get one anytime, because if he does, then why not Danishefsky, Wender, or Kishi for that matter? On the methodology side, if there's anyone who I think deserves a prize, it's the palladium coupling reaction catalyst guys.

That's why the bets of many are on Schreiber I think; he used synthesis in a very novel way and pioneered a big paradigm. He was the first one to use small molecules for modifying genetic mechanisms and protein-protein interactions in a significant way.

My two cents:

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3. Morten on September 28, 2006 1:29 AM writes...

Carl Woese got the Crafoord award in 2003 for rRNA phylogeny. It's like a mini Nobel prize (0.5 mio dollars) for stuff like ecology and astronomy which isn't covered by the Nobels. But they only give out one each year so it's rotated.
I actually got to see the thing in Stockholm when he got it. He's a very cool guy - big inspiration.
The same year I got to go to the Nobel ceremony (no banquet and the worst seats in the house) but was too hung over to get to the Nobel lecture.

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4. Morten on September 28, 2006 1:48 AM writes...

There hasn't been a protein structure related award since 2002 and those seem to crop up regularly.
For chemistry: Superconductive polymers?

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5. kiwi on September 28, 2006 1:56 AM writes...

i thought the same thing when reading the synthetic chemistry picks that thomson made. great guys, good work, but there are a lot of people with those same two quals. personally, i can't argue with GFP getting something, that technique is used for everything these days. and is it maybe a bit early for RNAi? and conductive (as opposed to superconductive) polymers already have the 2000 nobel, lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place

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6. wlm on September 28, 2006 6:14 AM writes...

Morten: thanks for the info. I guess since the Crafoord is also given by the Swedish Academy, there's not much chance of Woese getting the Nobel. Unfortunate, I think, since his work has influenced a lot more than ecology.

The only protein structure related work I can think of are the ribosome crystal structures. And I'm not sure they should get it.

My other choice for physiology/medicine is knockout mice (Capecchi, Evans, and Smithies). I don't know if Tsien really deserves it for GFP, though the technique is important enough. Maybe he'll get it for cellular probes generally.

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7. JSinger on September 28, 2006 8:53 AM writes...

It's funny how chemists and physicists discuss this stuff so furiously every year and biologists are mostly oblivious to it. I suppose it's a combination of 1) biomed research is so much larger and more heterogenous and 2) molecular biology, in particular, has a notoriously short historical memory (5-7 years typically), while chemistry and physics treasure history and pedigree much more.

I confess I can't even think who "Jefferys" is -- PubMed has a bunch of them, none of whom has done anything thrilling within the last, uh, 5-7 years. Is this the neuro guy or the HIV guy?

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8. TheMatt on September 28, 2006 9:29 AM writes...

As a theoretical chemist, let me say I'm glad to see the discipline is on everyone's mind... Besides, isn't it about time for the c. decennial theory Chem Nobel?

Seeing as it's in my work, let's look at John Tully for surface hopping and Nakamura Hiroki of Zhu-Nakamura theory.

Or what about Martin Karplus? Or, and this one is kinda obvious, Rick Heller? Has anyone not studied and used his wavepackets?

And, being a CU student, I should really be a homer. So how about Casey Hynes or Josef Michl?

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9. jes on September 28, 2006 10:02 AM writes...

i second the palladium-catalyzed couplings :)
palladium is magic

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10. Jordan on September 28, 2006 12:05 PM writes...

I think the Pd couplings deserve to be rewarded, but it's not 100% clear who should get the recognition. Isn't one of them already deceased? I think total synthesis falls into the same category. If Evans deserves it, why not all the other modern-day hotshots?

My personal pick is GFP. It's a fundamental discovery/technology that has changed life sciences research.

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11. Jose on September 28, 2006 2:43 PM writes...

Yes, the Pd couplings deserve a Nobel, but there are lots of names to consider.... Heck, Suzuki, Sonogoshira, then Deshong / Denmark (Si based systems), along with Buchwald, Hartwig, and Fu, and lastly, Stille (deceased). Apparently, all of the Heck, Suzuki and Stille work was based on some scattered reports in Japanese publications (?). I think it would be a serious mess for the commitee to sort out, but is certainly important enough to merit an award.

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12. userlame on September 28, 2006 3:06 PM writes...

GFP is a strong pick. If not this then maybe the single molecule microscopy work (Moerner, Hell, Scherer,....Betzig).

Rumor has it that many Harvard chemists, confused by the Red Sox post-World Series celebrations, thought that maybe G. Whitesides had won the Nobel.

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13. yepyep on September 28, 2006 4:15 PM writes...

No idea who is going to be awarded but I find it quite surprising that 250-350 names are nominated (by around 3000 persons). Somehow I thought that the number would be smaller, less than 100 or so.

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14. Canuck Chemist on September 28, 2006 5:07 PM writes...

I'd like to see Suzuki, Tsuji, and Heck get it for Pd-cat C-C bond formation. However, by my count there have been only a handful of awards for synthetic organic methodology or general organic synthesis:

2005 Chauvin, Grubbs, Schrock
2001 Knowles, Noyori, Sharpless
1990 Corey
1984 Merrifield
1979 Brown, Wittig
1965 Woodward
1963 Ziegler, Natta
1957 Robinson
1950 Diels, Alder
1912 Grignard, Sabatier
1905 von Baeyer
1902 Fischer

I think it's really up for grabs this year. As in any year, anyone with a strong biology application is sure to garner nominations.

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15. Anonymous on September 28, 2006 5:27 PM writes...


jeffreys = alec jeffreys, of DNA fingerprinting fame?

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16. luca turin on September 29, 2006 8:10 AM writes...

Roger Tsien (GFP) definitely, and about time !

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17. JSinger on September 29, 2006 8:40 AM writes...

jeffreys = alec jeffreys, of DNA fingerprinting fame?

Perhaps, if ISI misspelled his name! Anyway, that seems like a good examples of notable, but Nobel-level, work. If there was a real scientific breakthrough made in that area, it was Ray White's insight and demonstration that DNA polymorphisms are Mendelian.

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18. JSinger on September 29, 2006 8:42 AM writes...

Errr, "...but not Nobel-level..."!

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19. Rob on September 29, 2006 12:55 PM writes...

I always bet on longshots when I go to the horse
races. In that light, I pick George Smith of U. of Missouri to get the award in Medicine for the invention of phage display technology. He gets half the prize. The other half goes to Greg Winter and Rich Lerner for applying phage display to generate humanized monoclonal antibody libraries.

I am not a chemist, but I suspect if there was a way the Nobel Committee could rationalize awarding the prize for research of global warming, they might do so.

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20. handicapper on September 29, 2006 1:57 PM writes...

GFP is certainly a candidate, but how to limit it to 3 people? Shimomura in the early 60s first isolated GFP and figured out which parts glowed. Doug Prasher at Woods Hole recognized the potential and first cloned the gene, but never got a chance to heterologously express it. Both Tsien and Chalfie saw Prasher's Gene paper and asked him for the clone to do exactly what prasher didn't do. Chalfie did it in worms and Tsien in other things. That's 4 deserving people.

Tsien should win the Nobel for his calcium sensors, but maybe that's another story.

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21. Rick Blaine on September 29, 2006 10:53 PM writes...

It seems to me that Nobels are awarded for INFLUENCE more than any other factor. If your seminal paper launched a thousand subsequent ones, you're a good candidate. So my bets are on:

Suzuki and company (nowadays, absolutely every synthetic chemist, including me, uses Pd coupling regularly; there must be 10,000's of citations)


Tomalia & Frechet for denrimers (half the talks & posters in polymer and organic seemed to be on this topic at a recent ACS meeting)


Tsien & whoever else for GFP (not my field, but I hear a lot about this)

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22. Austin Elliott on October 2, 2006 9:43 AM writes...

Re. the medicine/physiology prize, one can't really quarrel with RNAi, which is clearly a significant advance both in "tools for researchers" and "basic underlying mechanism", as well as possibly being something which will produce therapeutics (though the as-yet underwhelming fate of gene therapy is a "caveat" in this last respect).

...but having said that, I hope the Nobel Ctte do get round to honouring Roger Tsien (mentioned in posts above) some time in the next couple of years. Apart from his work optimising and "coloring" GFP, he also merits a Nobel for his earlier work on small molecule fluorescent probes for "reading out" ion concentrations in living cells - every bit as influential in research on cells and how they work as the patch-clamp electrophysiology technique which won Sakmann and Neher the 1991 prize in medicine. Most people in the field think Tsien is overdue.

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23. MTK on October 3, 2006 11:26 AM writes...

For those looking for Suzuki, Heck, and others to be Nobel laureates, I would suggest that you might have to go further back. One of the first to explore metal catalyzed coupling reactions was Henri Kagan. Combine that with his work in asymetric synthesis, ligand design, samarium chemistry etc. and you have quite the CV.

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24. booger on October 3, 2006 10:37 PM writes...

On all these blog prognostications, no one has mentioned the seminal work Bob Lefkowtiz (Duke) did on elucidating the structure/function of G protein-coupled receptors - the cell surface receptors that are targets for over 50% of currently used therapeutics. Probably won't win the chemistry tomorrow, but should be considered for future awards

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25. MJ on October 3, 2006 11:38 PM writes...

A late suggestion, given the comment regarding the influence of, well, influence:

Alex Pines at UC-Berkeley, for his wide-ranging contributions to magnetic resonance, both fundamental and applied. In addition to helping develop CP methodology (which opened up "high-resolution" solid state NMR of dilute spins, and without which ssNMR would be far different today), he's also pioneered methods in quadrupolar NMR, MRI (including some potentially amazing work with hyperpolarized Xe), NMR of surfaces, basic physics experimentally realized by NMR (notably the Berry phase), zero field NMR....

Of course, the question becomes who else might warrant the Prize with him in some sort of mega-NMR prize, but I think Pines would have to be included should it happen.

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26. A-NONY-MUSE on October 4, 2006 12:42 PM writes...

Roger who?

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