The first week in October means many things, for some it is the start of the new Supreme Court session, for others, it is the beginning of the new fiscal year, and for others it’s all about the prizes, as in the Nobel Prizes.
The first Monday in October is set aside for the prize in medicine. This year, the prize was awarded jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for “the discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”
While that is quite a mouthful, what it really means is that these two scientists are being recognized for their discovery that one may be able to stimulate a person’s own immune system to attack cancer cells. This in turn has led to the development of a variety of immunotherapies to treat cancers.
What is really great is that Scientific American had interviewed James Allison in September as the winner of the 2018 Dr. Paul Janssen Award and published a video of the interview www.scientificamerican.com/custom-media/jnj-champions-of-science/behind-the-revolution-in-cancer-therapy/ which explained his research roots and the science behind the “Revolution in Cancer Therapy.”
The next up in the week-long presentation of Nobels is the prize for physics, and this year there was a great surprise. While the award is being jointly shared, one half to Dr. Arthur Ashkin and the other half to be shared by Dr. Gérard Morou and Dr. Donna Strickland. The award was for advances in laser science.
Dr. Ashkin’s work was the development of the “optical tweezer.” By focusing laser beams, one can trap things on the nanoscale, like viruses, bacteria, proteins, and molecules. When used in conjunction with other methods, this becomes an essential tool to be used to investigate a variety of scientific problems.
One example highlighted in the flurry of papers and reports that followed the announcement was that the invention of these tweezers was used to understand the motion of kinesin, a protein that transports cellular cargo inside cells and more recently in using it to build a single molecule from a sodium and cesium atom. It has even been used to manipulate particles inside nanoengines.
Dr. Morou and Dr. Strickland discovery or invention was related to increasing the intensity of short laser pulses, laser pulse amplification. This allows lasers to be used to cut and drill holes in materials and in living tissue as well as being used to understand rapid chemical processes.
One use of the laser pulse amplification that many can relate to is that this is one tool used for corrective eye surgery. Use of the laser pulse amplification was highlighted in a previous Nobel prize in 1999 when Ahmed Zewaill was awarded a Nobel in chemistry for his work on molecular systems on the femtosecond timescale.
But, it wasn’t just the science that got people excited about this prize in physics, it was also the fact that a woman was awarded the prize. Dr. Strickland became only the third female physicist to be awarded the prize. The other two, Madame Curie, 1903, and Maria Goeppert Mayer, 1963.
Wednesday was the day for the chemists, and another woman shared the prize, Dr. Frances H. Arnold. She became only the fifth woman to win the prize in chemistry following Madame Curie, in 1911, Irene Joliot-Curie, 1935, Dorothy Hodgkin, 1964, and Ada Yonath, 2009. Arnold was awarded one-half the prize, George P. Smith and Sir Gregory Winter shared the other half. Dr. Arnold’s prize was for the directed evolution of enzymes, while Smith and Winter were recognized for their work with peptides and antibodies.
Why does their work matter?
Custom enzymes are used in the production of biofuels, and the work by Smith and Winter has been used in the development of therapies to treat autoimmune diseases and metastatic cancers.
It was an exciting week for science as several deserving accomplishments were recognized. And, there was a great deal of science out in the general press.
It also provided a pleasant distraction from some of the other headlines in the news.
Editor’s note: This is a series of science-related articles by author Frankie Wood-Black, Ph.D., REM, MBA, to appear in Mid-Week section of the Ponca City News. The author currently runs her own environmental consulting firm based in Ponca City, Sophic Pursuits, Inc., and also serves as a Physics Instructor and the Director for Process Technology at Northern Oklahoma College.