Nobel prize 2020: A breakthrough year for women in science

Prof. Jyoti Vakhlu
The first week of October is a time of the year when all eyes of the scientific community are trained on the Swedish Academy and their choices, for award of the laureates for the year. Only destiny’s favorites are the elect recipients of the late night call, rumored to begin with words ,”This is Stockholm on the line”.
This year the announcements stood out for the unprecedented high number of women laureates chosen by the academy. Three out of eight Nobel prize winners, in science in the year 2020 are women, making it a healthy 37.5 percent of the total number of Nobel’s awarded this year. For a rough comparison, this is approximately 6 times more representation of women, in Oscars of science than in an average decision making body /a board room /a scientific body, in our country or for that matter, in the world at large. Scientific institutions in India, employ only 15 percent women, but women account for 40 percent of the university enrolments in science and they account for 37 percent of PhD’s in science subjects. This is therefore, a time to celebrate and rejoice in the triumph of these gritty female champions and also, a time for us to unfetter our young girls minds.
This year for the first time , the Nobel prize in chemistry was shared by, an all women team of French microbiologist Emmanuelle Marie Charpentier and American biochemist Jennifer Doudna, for developing a novel method for “genome editing” in a collaboration of just one year or so. This year’s announcement for Nobel’s spells, if not the death knell of patriarchy in science, surely a deep and irrevocable dent in this argument. Dr. Andrea Ghez, the third musketeer among this year’s women science winners, has the distinction of being only the fourth women, since the inception of nobel prize in 1901, to get a nobel in physics. The other three being , the legendary Marie Curie 1903 for her studies on radiation phenomenon, Maria Goeppert -myer in 1963 for helping elucidate nuclear shell structure and Donna Strickland in 2018 for ultra-short, high -intensity laser pulses, two in one century and two in a decade , Nobel committee, is sure catching up fast .
Nobel in chemistry
It is a well known fact that bacteria like us humans have an immune system, which is their defense mechanism against enemies like viruses. They fight their foes by exercising two types of immunity i.e. innate immunity and adaptive immunity, the former type being less specific than the latter. CRISPR /Cas system is an adaptive immunity developed by bacteria against viruses to neutralize them. It needs remembering the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1978 was awarded jointly to Werner Arber, Daniel Nathans and Hamilton O. Smith “for the discovery of restriction enzymes and their application in molecular genetics” , again a part of bacterial immunity . This year the Nobel has been awarded for the remarkable re-tooling of this property of the adaptive immunity of bacteria. This phenomenon was first discovered in Steptococcus pyogenes ,but is now known to be present in many bacteria, and has been literarily exploited to write a new chapter in molecular biology.
For the uninitiated it would suffice to say that, the blue print of life on earth is encoded in our genome, and this blueprint employs only four alphabets to convey all the basic information for the myriad processes of life. This language is in codes, written into our genes, that we inherit from our parents. These coded instructions in our genes need to be read and translated, for the life processes like growth, reproduction, nutrition, digestion to take place . It would not be farfetched to say that, almost all the things we classify as attributes of living beings ,are a function of the genes and their products. Much before coding for computers was developed, nature wrote coding language for life and it is imperative that during decoding of this language errors and malfunction’ s may creep in. Therefore nature had its proof readers and annotators ready for the cleanup services to preserve,if possible, the sanctity of the original text.
Molecular scientists lit upon this correctional tool of nature to tinker with the DNA and make “improvement “in already existing algorithm written in DNA. In their forays into bioengineering they succeeded in cloning insulin in E.coli , for industrial production of the drug, in -vitro. Meanwhile the scientists were alive too to the potential of a technique that could replicate this process in vivo , lierally within the cell .Imagine if instead of taking the gene out to engineer it , we could send the engineer in. Genome editing technique developed by these two pioneering ladies does exactly that and at a very low cost and in real time. CRISPER /Cas method was developed in 2012 and the fact that it was awarded the Nobel in a matter of eight years speaks eloquently about the impact of the invention.
What is in there for us
It is postulated and proven in some cases that the genetic disorders, fatal or otherwise can be corrected with high specificity and low risk using this technique. It has been reported that hereditary blindness of a person has been cured using this technology. CRISPR Therapeuticals, a gene editing company has edited the genome of two patients with beta thalassemia and one with sickle cell anemia. These patitients would no longer require blood tranfusion. repeatedly. Meaning that their gene machine has been tinkered to start manufacturing the deficient protein lacking in the patients and they no longer require blood transfusion. The bone marrow stem cells were edited with this technique to remove the incorrect sequence of nucleotide and relace them with the correct sequence capable for coding for an effector protein/enzyme.. The Nobel laureate Prof Doudna herself has launched a new company recently named “Scribe Therapeutics” and is busy developing a tool to edit genome to fight COVID-19. From India “Feluda” a CRISPR/Cas9 based COVID-19 kit developed by IGIB -New delhi, is yet another instance of successful application of the tool since its discovery.
Nobel in medicine
The award of the Nobel in Physiology and medicine, to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for discovery of Hepatitis C virus, underscores the importance of research in basic microbiology. Actually hepatitis virus has distinction of begetting two Nobel prizes for two set of scientists, one for the discovery of Hepatitis B in 1976 to Dr. Blumberg and 34 years later, this year for Hepatitis C the trio of Alter, Hougton & Rice.
Hepatitis a word with Greek origins means inflammation of the liver .Persistent inflammation of the liver can lead to liver damage, and in severe cases cirrhosis and liver cancer. Hepatitis is a major global health problem and it has many causes. But viral infection, is one of the leading causes of hepatitis’s world over. We now know that infectious viral hepatitis can be caused by 5 different types of DNA and RNA viruses. Discovery of hepatitis B virus (HBV) by Baruch Blumberg led to other discoveries in blood associated viral pathology and based upon this work, screening test for identifying and eliminating the blood carrying.Hepatitis B virus was developed. Soon it became clear ,that HBV was only one part of the problem The work of Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice, led to the discovery of another more potent virus HCV, subsequently screening method for this virus was developed eleviating the ailments millons of sufferers the world over. Importance of acknowledging this work in present times with Nobel cannot be missed, as researchers are sweating it out to decode the other viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, Ebola, nymph and HIV to name few .
What is in there for us
The Nobel assembly at Karolinska institute announced that this discovery is ‘landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases and it will certainly give boost to researchers engaged with battling COVID -19 and other viral diseases. Both hepatitis C and SARS-CoV-2, are RNA virus, as is HIV. It is difficult to develop vaccines against these type of viruses and the difficulty can be gauged from the fact, that almost 40 years after its discovery, we still do not have vaccine against HIV,. Employing the screening method, to screen infected blood before transfusion, has worked to check spread of infected blood, even though no vaccine is available against this virus at the moment.
Nobel in Physics
More than 100 years ago, Albert Einstein gave the celebrated theory of relativity, where relation of mass to energy was theorized ever so beautifully. Before him John Michell and Pierre-simon Laplace had speculated, that an extremely dense star could have such high gravity that even light – which has an inherent property that it bounces back of any other object-could not escape it .Light could not bounce back but it rather would get trapped due to huge gravity on account of dense mass (as gravity is dependent on mass) these massive light guzzling stars that gulp every object near them were called black holes, invisible starts ,or dark starts.
Just after Einstein published his theory of relatively, a Germen astrophysicist Karl Schwarzschild proposed a feature named ‘Event horizon’-the point of no return of the black hole, beyond which even light the fastest object in the world cannot escape and gets sucked into the black hole. However at that point in time these concepts and their implications were so bizarre that even rare geniuses like Einstein were befuddled. Later on further research established the truth of the matter and B. Datt and Robert Oppenheimer and Hartland Snyder independently gave the mathematical calculations for the collapse of a star.
American astronomer Harlow Shapley identified the of the centre of the milky way galaxy in the last century and this needs to be evoked here as it has a bearing on the work of one of this year’s physics winners. The center of our galaxy was named ‘Sagittarius A*’ and it is stated to be is 26,000 light years away meaning light from this point would take 26,000 years to reach us, i.e. about 260 life times ( if 100 years can be taken as a life time ) .Sun’s light takes only 8 minutes to reach us so one imagine how far this feature is .All the starts in milky way including our sun orbits the centre. One complete orbit around the center is said to take about 200 million years
This year’s Nobel in physics was shared by Roger Penrose, who discovered that black holes can and will form as described by Einsteins’s field equations and Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez ( only the 4th female to get a Nobel in physics ) who pointed out the super massive object at the centre of our galaxy . Sagittarius A* by tracking the movements of stars – specially the star named S2- around the object that is purpoutedly a black hole .This structure is a concentrated, invisible mass at the centre of our galaxy with calculated mass of about four million solar masses and there are strong indications, that it could be the super massive black hole of our galaxy.
What is there it for us
Most of what we take for granted in space science today was beyond the wildest assumptions of any one say a 100 years or so ago We have come so far since but have just reached the tip of iceberg and the journey to unravel universe has just begin. However, the journey that a man makes intellectually before physically embark on it is remarkable. Most of the predictions made by theoretical physicists about the world were bizarre day dreams of genius employing their heads only, but so many of their predictions, about the nature of univers have come true.
It is said that ‘Art imitates life, I think “Art imitates science ” the unconscioous symmetry of a poem parallels and mirriors, the beauty embedded in our univere. An artist reaches within for inspiration and ends up reflecting this eternal beauty in her truer works. While watching the movie “Serious Men” on Netflix the explanation of the protagonists that the early burn out of bright people, was comparable to bright stars who cannot help but get converted into black holes on account of their own intelectual gravity, recalled to mind black holes, both literal and the universal that dog our journeys. Quo vadis tu……..
(The author is Professor, School of Biotechnology, University of Jammu)