Nobel week for scientists is better than the Oscars. Aware as we are of structural imperfections with the selection process, it’s hard not to get caught up in the mystery and fanfare around the annual award announcements; predicting winners has even become a vibrant betting scene. And any event that gets the WaPo talking about neutrinos (admittedly, in gifs) must be doing something right.
As a professor, an aspect of the Prizes I’ve increasingly appreciated is how they can highlight personal and practical intersections of seemingly distant disciplines. It’s been surprisingly easy to connect at least one winner each year to the content of my chemistry courses. And the stories that emerge from the rare spotlight on an individual scientist can bring experiments to life.
Although I won’t get to share them with a class during my sabbatical year, the 2015 laureates have been no disappointment. The Prize in Physiology or Medicine announced Monday shone well-deserved light on the persistent problem of parasitic diseases. And although river blindness, the international scourge originally addressed by Campbell and Omura’s discovery of ivermectin, has little in common with alcoholism, recent work by Daryl Davies and colleagues shows surprising promise for the drug in treating addiction. Important to my lab’s work, ivermectin has also been instrumental in determining structures of glutamate and glycine receptors. Of course, the drug is best known to the US in veterinary clinics, where it’s found in many heartworm medications—an impressive range for such a bizarre-looking molecule.
The third laureate in medicine, Tu Youyou, followed an even more remarkable path to developing the malaria drug artemesinin. Credit for her work has been controversial, in part because Maoist China required her group publish it anonymously. Whoever the players, the legacy of artemisinin has also impacted alcoholism research: identified through exhaustive screening of archival Chinese medicines, it added credibility to this approach for a wide range of disorders. Jing Liang and colleagues at UCLA similarly referenced Chinese folk medicine in recent animal trials of dihydromyricetin, an extract from Japanese raisin tree, as a potential treatment for hangover—a problem that costs $220 billion annually in the US alone.
On a more personal note, the Prize in Chemistry was announced Wednesday for three biochemists elucidating the details of DNA repair. (Despite Wired’s provocative claim, I’ve never heard another chemist call biochemistry…only sort-of real science—are my colleagues just being nice?). Among the laureates was Tomas Lindahl, my collaborator Erik’s uncle. As Erik modestly put it to the Stockholm press, it’s good to see that we have at least one good scientist in the family! In fact, their clan of researchers also includes Tomas’ brother and daughter; presumably the Lindahl family will have much science to celebrate this holiday season.