News that the Nobel Prize awards for medicine or physiology will be announced on 2 October 2017, physics and chemistry on 3 October and 4 October, respectively, has ignited annual speculation about who will be crowned this year’s winners. Excitement for the awards is also rife following the announcement on 25 September, that the Nobel Foundation has increased the monetary award to over a million dollars.

Following a dip in capital, the foundation was forced to lower the prize money in 2012, and was therefore happy to report a return to stabilisation in finances. Below are some of the scientists many predict could win and the effect their work has had on the healthcare industry.

1) CRISPR/Cas9

A potential winner this year, CRISPR/Cas9, is most likely to have an impact on the healthcare industry and in fact, already is. The technology has already lost out on the chemistry prize twice. First in 2015, to scientists looking at how DNA repairs itself, and in 2016, to the team that used molecular physics to create the world’s smallest machines.

However, the technology is embroiled in a bitter patent feud between MIT’s Fang Zang who registered the trademark first; and Berkeley University’s Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who first proved that the technology was viable. In between, there were several researchers whose contribution made CRISPR/Cas9 the efficient and precise technology it is today.

The Nobel committee is historically keen to avoid controversy, however; and hence, may choose to let the legal system make a decision first.

2) Carbon nanostructures

Trio of American chemical physicist Phaedon Avouris, physicist Paul McEuen and Dutch physicist Cornelis Dekker could also be potential winners of the physics Nobel Prize for their work on carbon nanostructures – but, the science has implications in healthcare too.

Dekker’s work in particular, demonstrated the first biosensors made out of carbon nanotubes in 2003, first reported on the translocation of DNA through graphene nanopores in 2010 and then was the first to detect knots of DNA using nanopores in 2015.

Carbon nanotubes and nanofibres have applications in orthopaedic medical devices and due to the broad-spectrum antibacterial properties of nanostructures there is potential for them to be integrated into biomaterials.

3) CTLA-4 and cancer

Another trio of scientists from the US, Jim Allison, Managing Director of the Anderson Cancer Centre, Gordon Freeman of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Dr Arlene Sharpe of Harvard Medical School, could also be in the running for the trophy – much thanks to their discovery of how immune cells can destroy tumours.

Allison himself was the first to identify the T-cell receptor. He also discovered how surface molecules on immune cells called CTLA-4, act like brakes and how disabling them can make the cells kill tumours. Allison explains, “once you've generated T cells that can recognise cancer, you've got them basically for the rest of your life.”

The work has lead to the discovery of immunotherapy as a form of cancer treatment and the first immune-based cancer drug, ipilimumab, for metastatic melanoma. Freeman and Sharpe for their efforts discovered another immune-cell brake, called PD-1, which led to the discovery of the drug nivolumab used to treat a number of different cancers.

4) fMRI

Seiji Ogawa, considered to be the father of modern functional brain imaging, discovered the technique that underlies Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. He made fMRI possible thanks to his discovery of the technique of Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent (BOLD) contrast method which uses the magnetic susceptibility difference between oxyhemoglobin and deoxyhemoglobin in the blood to indicate different signals as active areas of the brain are delivered blood.

Given that Ogawa is now 83 years old, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously – awarding him now for a discovery that has revolutionised the healthcare industry may just be the only chance.

5) Tumour-suppressor genes and oncogenes

Robert Weinberg, a professor of cancer research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Dr Bert Vogelstein, a professor of oncology and pathology at the John Hopkins Medical School are pioneers in the world of cancer genomics. Through studies on colorectal cancers, they were able to find that they were caused by a build-up of mutations in tumour-suppressor genes and oncogenes.

Given that the work is now the basis of modern cancer research and that Vogelstein has developed mathematical models to track the evolutionary process of cancer, it is surprising he has not yet won.

However, Philip Sharp from MIT believes it may be because “to give the medicine prize [for something in cancer biology] they have to have body counts” of the discovery saving many, many lives. For immuno-oncology, he says, “there aren’t enough yet”. MIMS

Read more:
10 medical innovations that changed the world: Devices and technology
Infographic: 12 doctors and nurses that shaped the face of healthcare
Nobel Laureate Oliver Smithies leaves vast body of new work at age 91