Three Scientists, Including Caltech Professor, Win Nobel Prize in Chemistry

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US biochemical engineer Frances Arnold poses in Helsinki, Finland, on May 24, 2016. Arnold was awarded half the Nobel Prize in chemistry for conducting the first directed evolution of enzymes, leading to more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemicals.  (HEIKKI SAUKKOMAA/AFP/Getty Images)

Three researchers who “harnessed the power of evolution” to produce enzymes and antibodies that have led to a new best-selling drug and biofuels won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday.

Frances Arnold of the California Institute of Technology was awarded half of the 9-million-kronor ($1.01 million) prize, while the other half will be shared by George Smith of the University of Missouri and Gregory Winter of the MRC molecular biology lab in Cambridge, England.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which chose the winners, said Arnold, 62, conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, whose uses include “more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances such as pharmaceuticals and the production of renewable fuels.”

Arnold is only the fifth woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry since the prizes were first handed out in 1901.

Matt Hartings, an associate professor of chemistry at American University in Washington, D.C., said “her work is incredible.”

Hartings said the proteins that Arnold designed “do these really off-the-wall chemical things in record time.” He said her directed evolution approach has greatly helped chemists make enzymes do jobs that nature never intended, such as for industrial purposes.

Smith, 77, developed a method to evolve new proteins and Winter used the method to evolve antibodies, which are disease-fighting proteins in the blood.

A screen displays portraits of Frances H Arnold of the United States, George P Smith of the United States and Gregory P Winter of Great Britain during the announcement of the winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemestry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on October 3, 2018 in Stockholm. (JONAS EKSTROMER/AFP/Getty Images)

The first pharmaceutical based on Winter’s work was approved for use in 2002 and is employed to treat rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases, the academy said. The chemical name of the drug is adalimumab, which has several trade named including Humira, one of the top-selling drugs in the world.

Smith, speaking to The Associated Press after learning about this Nobel win, credited others for the work that led to his breakthrough.

“Very few research breakthroughs are novel. Virtually all of them build on what went on before. It’s happenstance. That was certainly the case with my work,” he said Wednesday. “Mine was an idea in a line of research that built very naturally on the lines of research that went before.”

Smith said he learned of the prize in a pre-dawn phone call from Stockholm.

“It’s a standard joke that someone with a Swedish accent calls and says ‘You won!’ But there was so much static on the line, I knew it wasn’t any of my friends,” he said.

American Chemical Society president Peter Dorhout praised the Nobel winners, saying “the laureates have used chemistry to accelerate the evolution of natural biological molecules that act as the critical machinery for living organisms.

“The breakthroughs from these researchers enable that to occur thousands of times faster than nature to improve medicines, fuels and other products,” he said.

Experts said the developments for which the winners won the 2018 prize can be more ecological than many other chemical processes.

Enzymes “are what all we organisms use to make our chemicals. So if you can harness enzymes for your own purposes, this is often more environmentally friendly than using heavy metals or toxic substances to make your chemicals,” said Johan Aqvist, a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

In other Nobel prizes this year, the medicine prize went Monday to James Allison of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University, who learned how to release the brakes that cancer can put on the immune system, discoveries that helped cancer doctors fight many advanced-stage tumors and save an “untold” numbers of lives.

Scientists from the United States, Canada and France shared the physics prize Tuesday for revolutionizing the use of lasers in research.

Arthur Ashkin became the oldest Nobel Prize laureate at 96, while Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada became only the third woman to win a physics Nobel. Strickland had worked with the third winner, Frenchman Gerard Mourou of the Ecole Polytechnique and the University of Michigan.

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is to be announced Friday. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, honoring Alfred Nobel, the man who endowed the five Nobel Prizes, will be revealed on Monday.

No Nobel literature prize will be awarded this year due to a sex abuse scandal at the Swedish Academy, which chooses the winner. The academy plans to announce both the 2018 and the 2019 winner next year — although the head of the Nobel Foundation has said the body must fix its tarnished reputation first.

The man at the center of the Swedish Academy scandal, Jean-Claude Arnault, a major cultural figure in Sweden, was sentenced Monday to two years in prison for rape.


Heintz reported from Moscow. Malcolm Ritter and Chris Chester in New York contributed to this story.