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The Nobel Prize in Medicine and Creative Minds

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Younes10_06final.jpgEvery October, scientists and the public from around the world eagerly await the announcement of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine. This year, the prize was given to three U.S. scientists for the discovery and identification of telomeres and telomerase, a process that seals off the tips of chromosomes like the cap on the end of shoelaces, and is a key to understanding both aging and cancer.

Telomeres are essentially caps that protect the ends of chromosomes. The telomerase enzyme determines the length of the caps. The longer the caps, the more frequent the chromosomes can be copied, therefore, controlling how often the cell divides.

The potential impact of this discovery is obvious. Inhibiting the enzyme activity can reduce the cell capacity to divide, a hallmark of cancer. In aging cells, the caps, or telomeres, become shorter. Thus, maintaining telomerase activity may prevent aging.

The Nobel Committee cited the scientists' work that was published approximately 30 years ago (telomeres in 1978 and telomerase in 1985). This means that two of the recipients were in their 30s and one was in her 20s when they made these discoveries.

Intriguing selection process
The secretive nomination and selection process of the committee remains intriguing, and continuously generates rumors and fascinating stories. According to Alfred Nobel's instructions in his will, the committee members should always be selected from the Karolinska Institute faculty in Stockholm.  In 1901, the committee included 19 members. Today, it includes 50. A total of 195 individuals have received the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

I visited Karolinska Institute in 1999, and had the opportunity to meet with its president, Dr. Hans Wigzell. At the time, Dr. Wigzell was the chairman of the Nobel Assembly that awards the prize in medicine. The following year I invited him to visit M. D. Anderson and to give a lecture on his scientific work in immunology. However, my hidden agenda was to get him to meet with our young medical oncology fellows, to discuss the award and to inspire them. He graciously accepted the invitation.

As planned, Dr. Wigzell met with our fellows in a small conference room over coffee and bagels. The informal meeting lasted 90 minutes, and the discussion spanned many interesting topics and anecdotes regarding the Nobel Prize. Although he couldn't reveal any secrets, he provided very important facts and insights.

The first fact was that nominations are kept very secretive and are not released to the public. You know that you got the prize when someone calls you from Stockholm early in the morning, shortly before the announcement is made public. So this is not like the Oscars. Although several investigators are nominated on a short list, the names remain secret and, therefore, there is no reward or even an acknowledgement for being nominated. Nothing to write about in your C.V.

The second fact was that no matter how important the discovery might be, the award is given only to a living scientist. No award is given after death.

The third, and most important observation that I recall from our meeting with Hans Wigzell, was that the majority of awards were given to scientists for discoveries that they made when they were young, mostly when they were in their 30s. A remarkable observation that strongly endorses the notion than many creative ideas come from young, unestablished investigators.

However, these discoveries have to be validated over time, and thus the awards are frequently given 20-30 years after their discoveries. This year's award was no exception.

Funding the young still critical
As research funds continue to decrease, a debate in the scientific community is focusing on who should get more research support: established senior investigators or new junior investigators. No one argues that established senior investigators should continue to receive research funding. However, a quick look at the history of the Nobel Prize and its laureates should convince everyone that funding young investigators is also critical for the continued progress through major discoveries that will have the greatest impact on humanity.
 

2 Comments

This is a great blog post. Very interesting, timely, and informative. When you describe your hidden agenda, I can also detect the heart of a great teacher at work, desiring to expose the next generation to greatness in their field and provide inspiration and hope to keep toiling despite adversity and obscurity. Wish I could have been in that room for those 90 minutes, sharing the coffee and bagels! Thanks for sharing details of that meeting with the readers of your blog.

Dear Don-
Thank you very much for your kind words. It was indeed a very interesting meeting. Professor Hans Wigzell is a very nice and down to earth man. If it wasn't for a phone call interruption that he received on his cell phone from the Swedish prime minister, you would not have felt how important he was. That by itself was a wonderful teaching moment. How to be modest and humble at the peak of your career.
Best wishes,
A.

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