Frances H Arnold and biotech game-changers share Nobel Prize in Chemistry

3 Oct 2018

Still from ‘Frances Arnold: New enzymes by evolution’. Image: MoleCulesTV/YouTube

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has gone to Frances H Arnold who will share the prize with George P Smith and Gregory P Winter for harnessing evolution.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has revealed this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to be Caltech scientist and engineer Frances H Arnold, with the other half of the prize being shared by University of Missouri scientist George P Smith and Cambridge scientist Gregory P Winter.

In doing so, Arnold is now only the fifth woman ever to be named as a winner of the prize, the last being Israeli crystallographer Ada E Yonath in 2009 for her work on the structure of the ribosome.

In announcing the news, the award committee said that the three scientists had helped harness the power of evolution.

Arnold’s breakthrough research began in 1993 when she conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, the proteins that catalyse chemical reactions. In the following years, she refined her methods, which have now become routine for those working in chemistry to produce new catalysts.

This includes the more environmentally friendly means of manufacturing chemical substances such as pharmaceuticals and renewable fuels at a time when demand is ever increasing.

Meanwhile, Smith’s major contribution to the field of chemistry began in 1985 when he developed phage display, an elegant method where bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – could be used to evolve new proteins.

Years later, Winter was able to use phage display to directly evolve antibodies with the intention of producing new pharmaceuticals. The first drug to be produced using this method was adalimumab, used for the rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases.

Since receiving approval for use in humans in 2002, phage display has gone on to be used to produce a range of antibodies capable of neutralising toxins, counteracting autoimmune diseases and curing metastatic cancer.

Arnold’s success follows a day in which the lack of female representation among Nobel laureates was highlighted by the naming of Donna Strickland as a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, becoming the first woman to win the prize in 55 years.

Speaking after hearing she won part of the prize, Strickland said: “We need to celebrate women physicists because they’re out there … I’m honoured to be one of those women.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic