Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded for using evolution to develop new chemicals

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Frances Arnold, a Caltech professor who serves on the board of directors of Illumina, the influential San Diego life sciences company, has been chosen to share this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The other half will be jointly split between George Smith from the University of Missouri, US and Gregory Winter from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the United Kingdom who developed a technique called phage display. Enzymes are complex proteins that make many chemical reactions possible.

In the 1990s, Arnold was the first to demonstrate how to use directed evolution to produce new enzymes. Because they are so useful, scientists had long tried to create enzymes with desired properties artificially, but with little success.

Arnold's innovative research on directed evolution has driven progress in both renewable energy and in pharmaceuticals. "You have a flagship institution, you have faculty here who are contributing to the entire world and we want to make sure we have the environment that allows them to be successful".

The other half of this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry will be shared by George Smith and Gregory Winter. Smith's method is known as "phage display". Antibodies are proteins that help fight infection in the body.

Smith created a process that helped develop new drugs that are now being used to treat cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease. The first one based on this method, adalimumab, was approved in 2002 and is used for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases.

Winter's research relies on phase display for the directed evolution of antibodies, or Y-shaped proteins that attach to infectious viruses and bacteria and let immune cells know they need to ward off an attempted invasion.

These antibodies can neutralize toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.

Reached by The Associated Press Wednesday, Smith credited others for the work that led to his breakthrough.

"That was certainly the case with my work".

She said that while historically it was true that far fewer women than men worked in research, the scientific community needed to wake up the field's changing demographics.

After repeatedly screening and mutating those microbes, she could use them to build a more powerful version of a desired protein.

This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three scientists for using the power of evolution to design molecules with a range of practical uses. Only 3 percent of science prizes have been awarded to women in science, Erin Ross reported for Axios a year ago. "And that, in part, is because she is an engineer in how she thinks".

The Nobel committee is increasingly aware of its poor track record with female scientists: a year ago all prizewinners were men.

"Every professor in my department saw Frances as an extraordinary student because she was gifted in mathematical analysis, in expressing creative ideas and in her encyclopedic knowledge of molecular biology", said Jeffrey Reimer, now chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. And now I'm directly benefiting from the work that was honored today.

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