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Chemistry, cash and the Nobel Prize

October 3, 2018

The 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry has recognized a "revolution in evolution" and biotechnology. But is it one we want?


Is it just me or has the Nobel Committee always honored industrial God delusions?

By awarding the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry to Frances H. Arnold, George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter for "harnessing the power of evolution," is the committee not inadvertently funding a cash-rich biotech industry at a time when the ethics of biotechnology have yet to be fully debated, and when we're still years from a consensus on where we should allow it to be applied?

I'm only asking. 

Even if we accept the line that the Nobel Prize is awarded to people and for inventions that have "conferred the greatest benefit to humankind" verbatim — the very line that Claes Gustafsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, used at the prize announcement on Wednesday — there's still some doubt over whom exactly their science has benefitted to date.

Read more: Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded

A brief scan of the web spits back a few choice suggestions, one of which is that the scientists benefit themselves.

Photo images of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on a screen at the prize announcement on October 3, 2018, in Stockholm
Three Nobel visionaries whose science may change the course of evolutionImage: Reuters/TT News Agency/J. Ekstromer

Frances H. Arnold, dubbed the "wizard of directed evolution," holds umpteen patents, has co-founded a renewable chemicals and biofuels firm called Gevo, and has won a number of prizes, including the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize, which came with a cash float of 1 million euros ($1.15 million). That alone will no doubt reduce her share of her Nobel Prize (around 300,000 euros) to mere "shrapnel" in her jeans.

Likewise, George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter (let's call them the "druids of phage display") hold patents, too.

Ten or more of Winter's patents are owned by his latest company, Bicycle Therapeutics Limited. His two previous companies, Cambridge Antibody Technology and Domantis, were bought up by the pharmaceutical firms, Astrazeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, respectively. The Astrazeneca deal carried a £700 million (788 million euro) price tag, while the GSK deal grossed a reported £230 million.

All this — but in particular those links with the drug and chemicals industries — wouldn't be such a concern if it weren't for the fact that there is huge gulf between the science, the cash bounties, and the medicinal drugs that "humankind" urgently needs but which industry is reluctant to fund. Think neurodegenerative research and other rare and neglected diseases in unprofitable, remote, "small market" regions.     

A patent problem

Patents in chemistry are common. In fact, they are very common. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), biotechnology and pharmaceuticals file among the most patents year-on-year.

Not for nothing were patents raised in a question at the chemistry prize announcement in Stockholm. Committee member, Professor Sara Snogerup Linse, knew to answer, although clearly she hadn't heard the latest on Arnold's progress.

"Arnold holds a whole range of patents in science for biofuels, for example, so you can now make fossil-free fuels for cars and airplanes based on her technology ... from renewable resources … she holds about 10 to 15 patents, I'm not sure of the exact number," said Linse.

The exact number, at time of writing, is 58. 

And you could argue that there's nothing wrong with that or anything wrong with a scientist's ties to industry. Especially in chemistry, which has a greater potential for becoming "useful for society" than physics, for instance.


"Science has to be useful for society," says Gianfranco Pacchioni, a material scientist and Pro-Rector for Research of the University of Milan Bicocca, Italy. "I'm not sure the detection of the Higgs boson particle will change our lives, but new proteins could definitely have an impact. Chemistry and biotechnology are closer to the market than particle physics, and naturally so."

And given that proximity to the market, it's necessary for scientists to hold patents in a highly competitive field such as biotechnology and chemistry.

All they're doing is protecting their hard-earned Intellectual Property (IP), right?

Right. And wrong. Because all you do by holding patents is protect your right to make money off of your discovery. And that, again, is okay — we do, after all, live in capitalist times. But there is also a sizeable community, including advocates of an "open source" approach to pharmaceutical drug discovery, who argue that IP slows down discovery and development. And I think they may have a point.

Being God

There is another issue, however. And that is the level of money being poured into biotech when society has yet to decide on its boundaries.

2018 Nobel Prize winner Frances Arnold
Frances H. Arnold: Academic, entrepreneur and Nobel LaureateImage: Reuters/P. McCarten

To give them their due, Arnold, Smith and Winter have, in their fields, contributed significant and fascinating science. 

You can see it's the work of scientists with real vision. Arnold's technique of mimicking the randomness of evolution redirects evolution to "rewrite the code of life," as she once put it. Smith and Winter's co-development of "phage display," is a method where a virus that infects bacteria is used to evolve new proteins. And proteins are essential for life. 

But — here I come again with the negative — some visions have to be kept in check.

Speaking at a TEDx at the USC Stevens Center for Innovation, Arnold said: "There's nothing like evolution for engineering beautiful organisms. I would like to be able to make things like these, things that could solve human problems, and things that would inspire solutions to human problems."

It sounds truly admirable.

But even as a non-religious person, I worry deeply about the level to which humans, specifically some scientists, hope to intervene in natural processes — even if they say it benefits humankind — because there are many other living organisms for whom we will decide.

And is that right? Or ethical? I'm just asking.

Arnold's directed evolution technology is virtually the opposite of Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna's gene editing technique, CRISPR-Cas 9. Where gene editing seeks to replace targeted genes, directed evolution re-randomizes the evolution of enzymes. Both re-write the code of life, potentially for all future generations of all living things. And yet CRISPR-Cas 9 faces all kinds of opposition on ethical and scientific grounds — rightly so, because all of these technologies are in their "early days," as the Nobel committee admits, so how can we already know who and how many of humankind they will benefit?

We can't yet know. So how can we honor directed evolution and phage display? Is it perhaps because industry has simply decided, at least for now, to place its bets on these two winning horses? It can always change its bets later. But would the Nobel committee retract a prize?

Well, I shall surely eat my words should I ever be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or cancer and one of these techniques, or a combination of both, help save me. But today I'd welcome a little more time to think.


Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI, the mind, how science touches people, European perspectives
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