The science behind this year’s Nobel Prizes

Meet the 2018 Nobel Laureates and delve deeper into their work on ResearchGate.


Medicine or Physiology
How immunotherapy became a game-changing cancer treatment

This year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology was awarded to two researchers working in cancer immunotherapy, which harnesses the body’s immune system to attack cancer. This type of treatment has helped many patients for whom traditional types of cancer treatment have been insufficient. Immunotherapy drugs do not work for everyone and have only been approved for some types of cancer. But much research is underway to make immunotherapy an option for more patients.

James P. Allison’s work with protein called CTLA-4 was a major step in making immunotherapy a reality. The protein acts as a brake on the immune system. Allison found that removing this break unleashes the immune system against cancer. You can learn more about his work on his ResearchGate profile.

While Allison examined CTLA-4, Tasuku Honjo achieved similar results with another protein: PD-1.

Both Laureates’ work paved the way for an entire category of immunotherapy drug, called checkpoint inhibitors. This type of immunotherapy still dominates research in the field, making up over a third of the research top immunotherapy specialists are reading.


Researchers turn lasers into mini tools

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics recognizes three scientists who’ve turned laser light into miniature tools.

Arthur Ashkin invented laser tweezers, which use the radiation pressure of light to grab particles, atoms, and even living cells. A big breakthrough for the technology came in 1987, when Ashkin used his tweezers to handle living bacteria without harming them. The tool is still widely used, for example to investigate the inner workings of cells.

The prize’s other laureates, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland, were recognized for finding a way to generate super short, super intense laser pulses. Their technique became standard for high-intensity lasers, which have many real-world applications including Lasik eye surgery. Some scientists think this type of laser may one day also be used for particle physics and cancer treatment.

Strickland was still a graduate student when she did the work that’s earned her a Nobel Prize. See what she’s been up to since then on ResearchGate.


Chemists harness the power of evolution

The 2018 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry applied the principles of evolution to designing proteins. The resulting enzymes and antibodies help protect the environment and treat disease.

Frances H. Arnold designs enzymes, proteins that regulate chemical reactions. Creating new enzymes by design is difficult. It’s hard to figure out how a small change to the complex molecules might affect how they work. That’s why Arnold turned to evolution for help. She inserted the enzyme-producing gene into fast-reproducing bacteria. Over generations, she looked for mutations that work best and repeated the process, essentially breeding enzymes for the desired function. The technique is now widely used, and Arnold’s enzymes help manufacture fuels and other chemical substances in a more environmentally friendly way. Browse Arnold’s research on ResearchGate to learn more about her work.

Arnold shares the prize with George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter. Smith pioneered another synthetic biology technique, in which he used a bacteriophage—a virus that infects bacteria—to determine the genes responsible for certain proteins and evolve new ones. Winter used the method engineer antibodies for new pharmaceuticals.


Activists campaign against wartime sexual violence

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize recognizes two activists?“for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” Nadia Murad is a survivor of sexual violence by the Islamic State. She campaigns to help other women and has told her story in front of numerous government bodies and international organizations.

Denis Mukwege?is a Congolese physician and advocate for victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A gynecological surgeon, he has also authored research on survivor experiences and medical practices for treating women who have experienced sexual assault.


Economic Sciences
Theories and models help fight climate change and drive innovation

Economist William D. Nordhaus was recognized by the Nobel committee this year for his work integrating climate change into long-term economic analysis. His model—the first of its kind—combines elements of physics, chemistry, and economics. Among other uses, it helps policymakers assess climate interventions like carbon taxes. You can learn more about Nordhaus’s work on his ResearchGate profile.

Nordhaus shares the prize with Paul M. Romer. Romer’s theory, which also informs policymakers, examines how economic conditions can drive technological innovation.


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Featured image courtesy of Adam Baker.