Research!America celebrates the 2020 Nobel awardees in Physiology or Medicine and in Chemistry for their innovative and collaborative work which uniquely showcases the importance of basic scientific research to discoveries that benefit human health.
For Physiology or Medicine, the team of Harvey J. Alter MD, Michael Houghton PhD, and Charles M. Rice PhD discovered and characterized the virus responsible for blood-borne hepatitis C. While an intramural researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Alter sparked discovery of hepatitis C by first identifying a distinct infectious agent in post-transfusion hepatitis cases that could not be classified as a type A or type B virus. Several years later, Dr. Houghton and colleagues were able to isolate the genome of the unknown pathogen, formally naming it hepatitis C. Dr. Rice provided essential details about the virus. His genetic experiments confirmed that hepatitis C alone could cause disease in host organisms which ultimately led to a cure. Dr. Houghton currently serves as the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology and Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology at the University of Alberta; he is the Director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute as well. Dr. Alter now serves as a Senior Scholar at the NIH Clinical Center’s Department of Transfusion Medicine. Dr. Rice conducted his seminal work at Washington University School of Medicine (a Research!America member) and has received continuous NIH funding since 1987. He now serves as the Maurice R. and Corinne P. Greenberg Professor in Virology and Head of the Laboratory of Virology and Infectious Disease at The Rockefeller University.
For Chemistry, Jennifer Doudna PhD and Emmanuelle Charpentier PhD designed a revolutionary gene technology tool: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Dr. Doudna determined the functional importance of Cas9 proteins. While investigating the immune system of a harmful bacteria (Streptococcus pyogenes), Dr. Charpentier discovered a key molecule necessary for the function of the CRISPR/Cas9 system. Dr. Charpentier and Dr. Doudna joined forces to recreate and simplify the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube. This newer CRISPR/Cas9 system is a powerful gene-editing tool that has contributed to further discoveries in basic research and is beginning to be applied to improve patient health. Drs. Doudna and Charpentier are the first women to win a Nobel prize in the sciences together. Dr. Doudna is a biochemist from the University of California, Berkeley, and received support from both NIH and NSF. She also is an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a Senior Investigator at the Gladstone Institutes. Dr. Charpentier heads a laboratory at Vienna University’s Institute of Microbiology and Genetics.
Funding from both NIH and NSF supported the work of these scientists, underscoring the crucial role of federal investment in basic research as a catalyst for discoveries benefitting us all.