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The 2020 Nobel Prizes in Science

Date: Thu. February 11th, 2021, 4:00 pm-5:00 pm
Location: Via Zoom

Link to video

Co-sponsored by the Program in Cell Biology and Department of Physics at CWRU

Kurt Hinterbichler (Physics) on the Nobel Prize in Physics; Ron Conlon (Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences) on the Prize in Chemistry; and Donald Anthony (Department of Medicine) on the Prize in Physiology or Medicine. 

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded half to Roger Penrose “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity,” and half to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.” These prizes recognize key parts of a century long development of abstract mathematics and detailed observation, ultimately yielding us the knowledge that the fantastical objects we call black holes actually exist in our universe.

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for the development of a method for gene editing. Charpentier and Doudna advanced gene editing by identifying, simplifying, and reprogramming a DNA-cutting enzyme. In a collaborative effort, they identified the essential components of a DNA nuclease from a bacterial adaptive immune system (CRISPR/Cas). They reduced the components to two: the Cas9 protein and a guide RNA. They showed that cutting could be reprogrammed to any new site by changing the sequence of the guide RNA. Their method has enough specificity to cut at a single site in a genome. Methods of gene editing had existed previously, but their method had greater efficiency, specificity, programmability and ease of use. The availability of genome sequences of many organisms and the universality of their method made genetic analyses possible in many organisms, and already has led to clinical trials of promising new therapies, and gene-edited foods in the marketplace.

The 2020 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Drs. Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice for their roles in the discovery of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and ability to eliminate HCV from the infected host. The awardees represent three critical time periods and areas of focus that contributed to this overall result. Over the late 1970s and 1980s Harvey Alter was a dominant contributor to our understanding of post-transfusion non-A, non-B hepatitis, a blood born transmissible infection most commonly leading to chronic infection and often leading to liver cirrhosis. Up to 5% of all blood transfusions at that time were known to result in transmission of this viral infection. He shared and established reagents and standards for others to test potential diagnostic reagents. In the late 1980s Michael Houghton was the dominant contributor to identification of the virus for non-A non-B helpatitis, now called hepatitis c virus (HCV). Using random primers his group created a cDNA library of DNA and RNA found in plasma of a known infected chimpanzee. Using a phage expression system he screened over a million clones with serum from persons with non-A Non-B hepatitis, including reagents Dr Alter shared. A diagnostic test for detection of the antibody for HCV was developed and soon HCV was removed from the national blood transfusion pool. The incidence of HCV infection plummeted by 1991. The virus sequence was analyzed and found to be within the flavivirus family. At the same time Charley Rice had accomplished expertise in the study of flavivirus. He developed full length RNA clones of the virus that were infectious when directly injected into non-human primate liver. He helped usher in the first and second generation HCV culture systems that provided the foundation for development of directly acting antiviral agents that we know to be curative today.

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