The 2023 Nobel Prize Winners – Part I

The 2023 Nobel Prize Winners – Part I

We present an overview of the winners of 2023 and their work, in two parts. This first instalment focuses on the three science awards.

Each year in October, committees in Sweden and Norway announce the recipients of the prestigious Nobel Prizes, recognising remarkable contributions made by individuals or organisations in various fields. These fields include physiology or medicine, physics, chemistry, economic science, literature, and peace work.

The grand awards ceremony takes place in Stockholm during December. Each Nobel Prize laureate is presented with a Nobel Prize diploma, a Nobel Prize medal, and a document specifying the monetary value of the Nobel Prize, which for this year amounts to 11 million Swedish krona for every field – equivalent to approximately US$989,000 based on current exchange rates.

We present an overview of the winners of 2023 and their work, in two parts. This first instalment focuses on the three science awards.

2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman were awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their ground-breaking discoveries that paved the way for the development of highly effective Covid-19 vaccines. These vaccines have been administered to billions of people worldwide, preventing millions of deaths and aiding in the global recovery from the worst pandemic in a century.

Dr. Kariko is the 13th woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine since 1901 and the first woman to do so since 2015. In 1998, she crossed paths with Dr. Weissman, a physician and virologist, at the University of Pennsylvania, where he heads a laboratory. At that time, Dr. Weissman was desperately searching for new approaches to develop an HIV vaccine, while Dr. Kariko was exploring the potential of mRNA, which provides instructions to cells for protein production. Contrary to the long-held belief that mRNA cannot be used clinically, Dr. Kariko believed it held the key to medical advancements.

Their collaborative research initially seemed like a fringe concept with little chance of success. The delicate nature of mRNA caused cells to instantly destroy it upon introduction. However, they eventually discovered that cells protect their own mRNA through specific chemical modifications. So, they replicated these modifications in laboratory-synthesized mRNA before injecting it into cells. Remarkably, this approach allowed the modified mRNA to be taken up by cells without triggering an immune response.

Their breakthrough caught the attention of two biotech companies: Moderna in the United States and BioNTech in Germany. These companies began studying the use of mRNA vaccines for various illnesses, including the flu. Then came the coronavirus, which accelerated their efforts. Drs. Kariko and Weissman’s work propelled these two companies to the forefront of vaccine development. By late 2020, regulators had authorised highly effective vaccines manufactured by Moderna and BioNTech in partnership with Pfizer. Both vaccines utilised the modification discovered by Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman. Furthermore, the utilisation of mRNA technology enabled both these vaccines to combat new strains of the virus.

Indeed, the applications of mRNA technology extend beyond COVID-19 vaccines. Currently, researchers are developing mRNA-based vaccines for influenza, malaria, HIV, and personalised cancer vaccines tailored to an individual patient’s tumour, enabling the patient’s immune system to target specific proteins on the tumour.

The Nobel Committee acknowledged that their discovery “fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system” and emphasised that their work “contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.”

2023 Nobel Prize in Physics

Three scientists, Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L’Huillier, were jointly awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in physics for their revolutionary techniques that unveil the subatomic realm of electrons, offering unprecedented insights into an unexplored domain. Their pioneering work has enabled scientists to observe the movements of subatomic particles that were once considered impossible to capture due to their incredible speed.

Pierre Agostini is an emeritus professor at Ohio State University. Ferenc Krausz is director at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany and a professor of experimental physics at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Anne L’Huillier, is a professor at Lund University in Sweden; she becomes only the fifth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

To study the intricate motions of electrons, the laureates employed ultra-short pulses of light that last only forattoseconds – which is equivalent to one quintillionth of a second. The Nobel Committee emphasises that attosecond science enables researchers to tackle fundamental questions by precisely measuring the relative positions of electrons within an atom.

In 1987, Dr. L’Huillier laid the foundation for electron-level exploration by investigating the effects of passing an intense laser through noble gases, which are odourless, colourless, single-atom gases with low chemical reactivity. Her research revealed that the laser energised the gas, leading to the emission of light at specific frequencies. This outcome showcased the potential of aligning electromagnetic light waves to generate short pulses that could be utilised to study electrons.

In 2001, Dr. Agostini successfully demonstrated a method to produce a train of light pulses lasting 250 attoseconds. In a separate experiment, Dr. Krausz employed a different technique to generate a single pulse of light lasting 650 attoseconds. Subsequent advancements have pushed the boundaries, allowing for the generation of pulses as short as a few dozen attoseconds. This subatomic “strobe light” concept serves as the foundation for capturing the motion of electrons – equivalent totaking a snapshot of the inner workings of atoms.

Electrons move at a speed of 43 miles per second, making their study seemingly impossible. However, the novel experimental techniques developed by these three laureates employ short light pulses to detect the movement of electrons at a specific instant. To illustrate, consider an everyday example of a rotating fan. At a high speed, the fan blades appear as a blur. Yet, if a strobe light is directed towards the fan, each flash illuminates a frozen moment in time, revealing detailed information about the position of individual blades as the flashes become shorter.

The laureates’ discovery not only sheds light on physical systems operating at brief time scales but also equips physicists with a powerful tool to explore the microscopic world. Attosecond physics allows scientists to accurately measure the timing of electronsbeing released under the influence of light. Delving into the ultrafast realm of electron motion may also lead to advancements in circuitry, drug design, battery ingredients, and non-invasive diagnostic tools in medicine.

2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Moungi G. Bawendi, Louis E. Brus, and Alexei I. Ekimov were honoured with the 2023 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their pioneering discovery and development of quantum dots, which are nanoparticles so small that their propertiesare determined by theirsize.

Dr. Bawendi currently serves as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Brus is a professor emeritus at Columbia University. Dr. Ekimovwas formerly achief scientist at Nanocrystals Technology, a New York-based company.

At the core of quantum mechanics lies the principle that objects can exhibit both particle-like and wave-like behaviour. This principle extends to electrons, which possess a frequency related to the colour of light they emit, similar to all other types of waves. Scientists have long recognised that confining atoms within an extremely small “container” could increase electron frequency and alter the type of light absorbed or emitted by the material. This container, known as a quantum dot, is a crystal that triggers the wave-like behaviourdescribed in quantum mechanics.

However, the practical realisation of this theory remained elusive because scientists lacked the means to compress a material to the extent necessary for quantum effects to manifest. In the 1970s, Dr. Ekimov observed that copper chloride crystals formed within glass when heated. Remarkably, the colour of the glass appeared bluer as the crystals decreased in size. Similarly, Dr. Brus discovered the same phenomenon independently by using cadmium sulphide crystals. These early observations marked the first evidence of a quantum effect determined by size rather than the elemental composition of the material.In the 1990s, Dr. Bawendi devised ainnovative chemical method for producing quantum dots with exceptional optical quality. This breakthrough revolutionised various fields, including medicine and everyday electronics.

While conventional crystals in semiconductors are typically large at the molecular level, quantum dots consist of just a few thousand atoms compressed into a space measuring a few nanometres. Such quantum dots now find application in fine-tuning the colours of LED lights and enhancing the brilliance of television screens. They are also used as fluorescent imaging tools in biomedical applications –for instance,identification of cancerous tissue. Quantum dots are anticipated to drive advancements in electronics, solar cells, and encrypted quantum information.

InPart 2, we will present the winners in economics, literature and peace work.

[To be concluded]

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