Nobel Prizes 2020: who's won what?

Meet the winning discoveries: Hepatitis C, the gene editing technique CRISPR, and a supermassive black hole...
13 October 2020

Interview with 

Victoria Gill, BBC Science Correspondent


A Nobel Prize medal on a black background.


The Nobel Prizes for 2020 have been announced: among the winning discoveries, the virus that causes significant liver disease, the gene editing technique called CRISPR, and a supermassive black hole. BBC science correspondent Victoria Gill took Chris Smith through the details, starting with physiology & medicine...

The Nobel Assembly has today decided to award the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice, for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.

Chris - So Vic, what did these men do? What have they actually discovered?

Victoria - It is this beautiful stepwise series of discoveries of, well, hepatitis - the discovery of Hepatitis C - and also how to detect it, that's led to blood tests, that's led to treatments and cures, and the possibility that this potentially lethal virus could be wiped out. There's three types of hepatitis and Hepatitis C, up until the seventies, was unknown; but it was found that patients who had blood transfusions were getting this unknown cause of hepatitis. So Alter and his colleagues showed that blood from these hepatitis infected patients could transmit the disease to chimpanzees; he showed this disease-causing agent in infected people's blood. Then Houghton took that a step further by painstakingly isolating and collecting DNA fragments from these infected chimpanzees, so he found the code of the virus; and then Rice took it even further to show that it was actually this virus, alone, by itself, that could cause hepatitis - inflammation of the liver - which can kill you. So it's this lovely step by step from the seventies to the nineties that has got us from this unknown cause of lethal liver inflammation, to a point where we know exactly what's causing it, that that is the sole cause, and now we have a way of potentially wiping out this virus. We can certainly test for it very rapidly, treat it, and cure it.

Chris - Did you foresee Hep C making a Nobel this year Theo?

Theo - I wish I could say so, but I did read a prediction of it, because I believe the scientists involved had received some of what are seen as the precursor prizes. So they were certainly on the slate.

Chris - It's an important problem though, isn't it? The anticipated burden of disease caused by Hep C: 170 million people around the world, and it's a direct cause of liver cancer and liver disease. So it's pretty important as a pathogen, and the fact we've now identified it and can eradicate it, even; that I think is a prize well-earned, isn't it?

Theo - Absolutely. And it sort of bears comparison, when we're all rather obsessed with one particular virus at the moment: how long it used to take to identify the virus causing a particular problem, and then prove that that virus was the cause. And we have all taken for granted the fact that a new virus has emerged in China late last year, we can already identify it, know that it's causing disease with great certainty, and we will hope that we can vaccinate against it pretty soon.

Chris - Lee, there's some suggestion - I mean, it's a number of years old now, this suggestion - but when you compare the genetic makeup of Hep C and the genetic makeup of a certain group of viruses that infect dogs, some people have suggested that in fact dogs gave us Hepatitis C, and it would have been the very close sort of proximity between us domesticating dogs and those dog owners initially that perhaps enabled that jump to happen. And a bit of a striking parallel - Theo's talking about the fact that we've identified COVID in record time - but the fact that we could actually have a virus that's jumped out of bats and into people to cause COVID, and we've got a virus that jumped out of dogs and into people to cause Hepatitis C. What do you think about that?

Lee - As science has progressed so incredibly, particularly over the last decade, we're going to be able to test that question. And we're not far from being able to do that. We have from the archaeological record, and some genetic record, that we've domesticated dogs inside of the last 30,000 years. And as we begin to get ancient DNA, we should be able to clock that and test the idea: which came first, the Hepatitis C or dog domestication?

Chris - Well let's move on to the Nobel Prize for Physics, which has also come out this week...

One half to Roger Penrose, for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity' and the other half jointly to Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel, for the discovery of the supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.

Chris - That's one way of putting it, isn't it: the 'supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy'. There was actually a lovely quote, Vic, from Christopher Berry who's a physicist at Northwestern University, and it resonated with me, because he said, "black holes capture anything that gets too close to them. This is equally true about our fascination. Once you start learning about black holes, there can be no escape." So watch out, if you report on them too much you might get sucked in.

Victoria - That's really nice. I think my favourite response to the physics Nobel came from another physicist, Paul Coxon at the University of Cambridge, who tweeted that "awarding the physics Nobel for a supermassive chasm of infinite darkness is very 2020" which I thought really hit the nail on the head. This was a fascinating one. It's a wonderful British scientist, 89 years old, Roger Penrose, who gets half this prize; and then the other half is shared between Reinhart Genzel and Andrea Ghez, who is only the fourth woman to win a physics Nobel. So it sort of encapsulates a lot of the intrinsic problematic issues with the Nobels, and this ongoing issue with the perpetuation of the problematic academic hierarchical system that the Nobels is kind of famous for. But it's also just this real celebration of absolutely fundamental science. What Roger Penrose did is sort of... I mean to me, him applying general relativity to come up with entirely new calculations, the fact that a black hole can be a real thing can actually form in the universe, is kind of another level of thinking for me.

Chris - Well, let's move straight on to chemistry because that was the third and final prize that was announced this week...

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, for the development of a method for genome editing.

Chris - This is of course the technique otherwise known as CRISPR. Did you see that one coming Theo?

Theo - I think this one looked very likely at some point, because the CRISPR-Cas9 technique has so revolutionised the way that researchers can edit DNA, including the fact that we believe that someone actually used it illegally and ethically to edit the DNA in unborn children. But it's clearly something that has changed the whole way that molecular biology is done. And in contrast to that Hepatitis C work from the 1970s to the 1990s, and which by the way went to three men, this prize has gone to two women for work done in the past decade; and that's exciting on both counts, I think. By studying basic biology they've come up with a tool that has changed basic science already, and it's likely to change medicine as well.

Chris - Vic, how does CRISPR actually work? What does it involve? What will it enable us to do?

Victoria - It's actually the ancient immune system of a bacteria which essentially has this component called tracrRNA, which cleaves, it snips out, a bit of DNA from whatever is attacking it. It basically kills whatever attacking it; its immune system has this pair of genetic scissors. And what these two amazing scientists have done - and they collaborated together to bring together their genetic knowledge and their molecular biology, this is the real kind of chemistry of life stuff - they got together to figure out how to simplify that bacterial immune system, this cleavage, into a pair of much simpler molecular genetic scissors that can be used anywhere. Essentially you can, just as if you were editing a piece of tape and you can snip out a bit and then stick it back together, you can do that with a genetic code. So you can just imagine... actually the Swedish Academy themselves said that it's only imagination that holds back the limitations of what we could do with this technology. I think another important postscript to that is that our morals and ethics is also going to play a big role in terms of what humans will do with this technology, because the possibilities molecularly are boundless.


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