The last (but not least) of this year’s Nobel science prizes was for chemistry – and the winners’ research projects also dabbled in biology and engineering.
The 2018 Chemistry Laureates took control of evolution and used the same principles – genetic change and selection – to create compounds helpful to mankind.
Evolution’s helpful traits don’t appear by design — they’re random variations. Nobel winners Frances Arnold, George Smith and Gregory Winter directed the evolution of biological molecules, accelerating it to a level much faster than what happens in nature. Arnold’s research bred enzyme-producing bacteria; Smith and Gregory harnessed antibodies (proteins).
Arnold’s research took a traditional path of modifying enzymes through logic and knowledge; she then switched to evolution, applying the principles of randomness, like “Darwin in the test tube.” Those who scoffed at her work said, “‘It’s not science’ or ‘Gentlemen don’t do random mutagenesis …’ But I’m an engineer! Only engineers would do something like that,” Arnold recounted.
In her initial experiments, she produced an enzyme that, by its third generation, was more than 200 times as effective.
Today, the resulting improved molecules have a wide range of applications, including brain imaging, friendly detergents and pharmaceuticals – for example, biofuel-producing organisms and synthetic pheromones whose odor scares harmful bugs away from crops.
George Smith developed a method called phage display, in which a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new proteins; he predicted that the method could help to develop new vaccines.
A paper Smith authored has been cited more than a thousand times and has influenced at least 10 times that many new scientific documents.
Gregory Winter used phage display to produce new pharmaceuticals, introducing mutations to make antibodies better at binding to their targets.
In 2002, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first human-antibody-based drug, adalimumab, sold as Humira, to treat auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, chronic plaque psoriasis and Crohn disease. “I didn’t have any idea [the technique] would be so successful,” Winter said. “In the 1990s, the pharmaceutical industry was run by chemists. To them, a drug was a chemical. They didn’t believe antibodies would be therapeutics.”
Today, phage display has produced antibodies that can neutralize toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.
Wayne Marasco of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute said that the lab technique that Smith and Winter developed “lets scientists screen millions or even billions of antibodies for their ability to grab onto a target like a protein on the surface of a cancer cell. It makes such screening far faster and more efficient.”
So our congratulations go out to Chemistry Nobel winners Arnold, Smith and Winter, who leveraged their research in chemistry, molecular biology, and protein science to develop new types of chemicals for the greatest benefit of humankind.
If you’re finding it hard to see how an enzyme or a phage is chemistry, believe Oliver Jones, a chemist from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, who said “They are. Chemistry underpins so many things in our lives, even if it is not always immediately obvious.”