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Standout Winners in Medicine, Chemistry, and Peace: The 2020 Nobel Prizes

Updated: Sep 18, 2022

By Niva Cohen

Opinion Editor

This past October, the Nobel Committee distributed prizes in all fields. Unlike in ordinary years, when the winners would fly to Stockholm for an in-person ceremony, they attended an online one. Despite the unorthodox manner in which they received their awards, 2020’s recipients are just as deserving as any.

Three doctors -- New Yorker Harvey J. Alter, Briton Michael Houghton, and Californian Charles M. Rice -- shared the Physiology or Medicine award. Working in different decades toward the same cause, each helped discover the Hepatitis C virus and, according to the Committee, “made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.” Hepatitis C can cause the liver to swell and affects 71 million people, yet it was a medical mystery until these three doctors made scientific and medicinal leaps.

In the 1970s, Dr. Alter, who works at the Warren Grant Magnuson Clinical Center in Maryland, made the first stride by discovering that neither the type A nor the type B form of Hepatitis was responsible for most hepatitis cases caused by blood transfusions, one of the most common means of transmission. Because of his research, it was clear that some other similar virus must exist. In the 1980s, Dr. Houghton, a professor at the University of Alberta, identified the Hepatitis C virus, allowing doctors to screen for it in their patients and prevent cases from worsening by catching them early. Finally, Dr. Rice of Rockefeller University in New York conducted further studies and found that chimpanzees got sick when exposed only to Hepatitis C and nothing else, solidifying Alter’s and Houghton’s conclusions.

Hepatitis C can spread asymptomatically, so many people don’t know when they have it. In these cases, the virus can act as a silent killer, gradually destroying the liver from the inside. Drs. Alter, Houghton, and Rice did the research that allows physicians to accurately test for the virus with a blood sample. Through their research, they have saved lives and, as Dr. Houghton works on a vaccine, might continue to do so.

Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier from France and Jennifer A. Doudna from the U.S. won the Chemistry Prize for their work on CRISPR, a gene-editing tool that has exploded (figuratively speaking) in the scientific community. They discovered CRISPR genetic scissors in 2012, which can alter animal and plant DNA with extreme precision. CRISPR tools can change a genetic code in a matter of weeks, speeding through millennia of evolution. Therefore, by using Charpentier’s and Doudna’s techniques on humans, we might be able to find a cure for cancer and other devastating diseases. Although there are some ethical questions about applying CRISPR to people, from a scientific standpoint, these two women have done a service to generations to come.

The World Food Program, a UN organization founded in 1961, won the esteemed Nobel Peace Prize. The biggest humanitarian group focused on food, the WFP strives to eliminate world hunger, especially in the face of the coronavirus. When countries are at war, conflict decreases the food available to citizens, and the coronavirus only exacerbates this effect. The WFB relieves this struggle with starvation, providing food and helping war-torn countries make the first step toward peace.

The WFP has been serving from the background for decades. It has helped in hundreds of crises, including the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s, the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s, and natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami of 2004 and the Haitian earthquake of 2010. Employees sometimes even put themselves in danger for their cause, entering perilous regions like Yemen to help victims of their governments’ negligence. Last year, the WFP helped almost 100 million hungry people in 88 countries. Its impact has only grown, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

In times of strife and struggle, it is easy to overlook silver-linings. The Nobel Prizes are an opportunity to praise those doing good work and draw attention to their selfless efforts. For years of research,volunteering, and trial-and-error, the Cougar Chronicle congratulates this year’s Nobelists.


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