Nobel Prize: will this be the year vaccine pioneers win medicine prize?

Prizes from other institutes can be a precursor to Nobel success

The Nobel prize medal in Physiology or Medicine. AFP
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Nobel Prize season returns on Monday with medical pioneers the first to be honoured, setting off an annual guessing game that ends with a once-in-a-lifetime phone call from Stockholm for a scientist who changed the world.

Vaccine scientists are among those tipped for the medicine prize after the global immunisation race against Covid-19 helped much of the world put the dark days of lockdown behind it this year.

Not even they know whether they are in contention ― such is the secrecy that surrounds the prize ― and the shortlist considered by Nobel judges is not made public for another 50 years.

But certain clues, such as prizes from other institutes sometimes regarded as precursors to a Nobel, can help put some flesh on the guesswork.

Jason Seltzer, a Yale University biologist who has published research on the Nobel Prize, published a list of 63 living scientists who had won at least two of the lesser-known awards.

“The Nobel committee is famously conservative — they don’t want to go out on a limb and elevate a discovery that’s later overturned,” he said.

The terms set by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist who left the prizes in his will in 1895, are that the prize goes to the person who “made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine”.

The medical award will be followed by the prizes for physics on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday, literature on Thursday and, in Norway rather than Sweden, peace on Friday. The economics award come the following week.

Scientific discoveries do not have to be recent, and may have gained in significance over time. Evaluators for the medicine prize are asked to discreetly prepare a report on potential candidates and report back over the summer.

A final decision on the medicine prize will be made on Monday by the 50 members of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. There can be multiple winners in one year.

Only then, moments before the winning names are announced to the world at 11.30am in Sweden — which can be the middle of the night in a winner’s home country — will Karolinska scientist Thomas Perlmann give them the famous call.

Scientists tipped for this year’s medical award include Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissmann as mRNA vaccine pioneers.

The development of effective mRNA vaccines was the breakthrough that tamed the pandemic, earning much acclaim for scientists at Pfizer, BioNTech and other manufacturers.

Although novel in some ways, mRNA technology had been in development for many years before Covid-19 emerged, notably through the work of scientists

Their work in the early 2000s could be a prime example of research that bears fruit over time, and the pair have already collected the Horwitz Prize, the Albany Prize and the Breakthrough Prize.

Virginia Man-Yee Lee, from University of Pennsylvania, is tipped as one-to-watch for her often-cited work on malformed protein aggregates in different cell types.

Mary-Claire King at University of Washington for her work on mutations in breast and ovarian cancer and Stuart Orkin, from Harvard Medical School, for identifying genetic changes behind the various types of thalassaemia, have also been named by experts as having the kind of work Nobel like to honour.

Updated: September 30, 2022, 7:55 PM