This year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine won’t be announced until Monday, October 6, but if you wanted to place a bet on who might win, Thomson Reuters has rounded up some of 2014’s most promising candidates.
Since 2002, Thomson Reuters has correctly predicted 35 Nobel Prize winners using algorithms that mine the scientific literature for highly-cited authors. This year’s selection includes seven scientists who are revolutionizing our understanding of pain and disease.
Taking The Heat Out Of Pain
Bite into a hot chilli pepper, and your mouth floods with a throbbing heat. The reason we feel both pain and warmth when we eat spicy foods is surprisingly simple: The cells that respond to chilli peppers’ active compound register their sometimes-painful spiciness in the same way they register heat.
Physiologist David Julius, who discovered the phenomenon at his lab at the University of California, San Francisco, is using his findings to come up with new ways to treat pain. He’s identified a specific family of genes that is triggered both by the pepper compound and high temperatures. New drugs, his research suggests, could block the gene and dampen the sensation of pain.
All of our cells contain specific instructions for what they will do in the body, but when and how those instructions are read — and when chunks of our DNA become active — is still largely a mystery.
Rockefeller University biochemist Robert G. Roader and University of California, Berkeley biologist Robert Tjian found a new class of special proteins that help control how and when genes are switched on. These proteins work by helping to open up the tightly wound coils of DNA inside our cells, making their instructions more easily accessible.
Rockefeller University biologist James E. Darnell identified another class of molecules that bind to our DNA and tell the cell when to start copying the instructions that will allow it to function. Together, their findings will help doctors understand how we might be able to control the genetic risks for a wide variety of diseases.
Why Our Bodies Turn Against Us
Remember when scientists thought they’d shown that all humans were 99% alike (genetically speaking)? These are the three scientists who independently proved that notion wrong.
Michael H. Wigler, Charles Lee, and Stephen W. Scherer are identifying how the differences between our genes can predispose us to — or protect us from — disease. Their discoveries will likely change how we identify and treat diabetes and other harmful diseases.
Far from being 99% the same, our genomes — the collection of genes responsible for all our characteristics — are highly diverse. So diverse, in fact, that large stretches of our genetic database can be either missing or duplicated. As a result of these absences and repetitions, as many as one in ten of all our genes are completely distinct. So instead of being 99% the same, we share closer to 90% of our genes.
Some of these discrepancies are also the foundations of disease. Separately, Scherer and Wigler recently discovered a link between these divergent DNA strands and autism spectrum disorder, a finding that builds on other research connecting the same types of gene differences with schizophrenia, lupus, and some forms of cancer.
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