Nobel Prize has outlived its usefulness

The Nobel Prize in Physiology was awarded for the discovery of Hepatitis C today. The work is clearly deserving of recognition but this is another case where there were definitely more than three people who played an essential role in the work. I really think that the Nobel Prize should change its rules to allow for more winners. Below is my post when one of the winners of this years prize, Michael Houghton, turned down the Gairdner Award in 2013:

Hepatitis C and the folly of prizes

The scientific world was set slightly aflutter when Michael Houghton turned down the prestigious Gairdner Award for the the discovery of Hepatitis C. Harvey Alter and Daniel Bradley were the two other recipients. Houghton, who had previously received the Lasker Award with Alter, felt he could not accept one more award because two colleagues Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo did not receive either of these awards, even though their contributions were equally important.

Hepatitis, which literally means inflammation of the liver, was characterized by Hippocrates and known to be infectious since the 8th century. The disease had been postulated to be viral at the beginning of the 20th century and by the 1960’s two viruses termed Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B had been established. However, there still seemed to be another unidentified infectious agent which was termed Non-A Non-B Hepatitis NANBH.

Michael Hougton, George Kuo and Qui-Lim Choo were all working at the Chiron corporation in the early 1980’s.   Houghton started a project to discover the cause of NANBH in 1982 with Choo joining a short time later. They made significant process in generating mouse monoclonal antibodies with some specificity to NANBH infected materials from chimpanzee samples received from Daniel Bradley at the CDC. They used the antibodies to screen cDNA libraries from infected materials but they had not isolated an agent. George Kuo had his own lab at Chiron working on other projects but would interact with Houghton and Choo. Kuo suggested that they try blind cDNA immunoscreening on serum derived from actual NANBH patients. This approach was felt to be too risky but Kuo made a quantitative assessment that showed it was viable. After two years of intensive and heroic screening by the three of them, they identified one clone that was clearly derived from the NANBH genome and not from human or chimp DNA. This was definitive proof that NANBH was a virus, which is now called Hepatitis C. Kuo then developed a prototype of a clinical Hepatitis C antibody detection kit and used it to screen a panel of NANBH blood provided by Harvey Alter of the NIH. Kuo’s test was a resounding success and the blood test that came out of that work has probably saved 300 million or more people from Hepititis C infection.

The question then is who deserves the prizes. Is it Bradley and Alter, who did careful and diligent work obtaining samples or is it Houghton, Choo, and Kuo, who did the heroic experiments that isolated the virus? For completely unknown reasons, the Lasker was awarded to just Houghton and Alter, which primed the pump for more prizes to these two. Now that the Lasker and Gairdner prizes have been cleared, that leaves just the Nobel Prize. The scientific community could get it right this time and award it to Kuo, Choo, and Houghton.

Addendum added 2013-5-2:  I should add that many labs from around the world were also trying to isolate the infective agent of NANBH and all failed to identify the correct samples from Alter’s panel.  It is not clear how long it would have been and how many more people would have been infected if Kuo, Choo, and Houghton had not succeeded when they did.

2 thoughts on “Nobel Prize has outlived its usefulness

  1. I remember when is first ‘studying’ mathematical biology ( came across books/papers by Ilya Prigogine on self-organization, and others in J Theoretical Biol. in library–i showed these to one of my profs . He said he basically didn’t consider Prigogine to be much of a scientist and I pointed out he had a noble prize. He basically said that didn’t matter , and I sort of agreed because i had looked through references in Prigogine’s books, etc and found there were many other people working in same area who seemed equally ‘good’.. (Possibly Prigogine’s ‘dissipative structures’ was just a very good name–i still think so.) I think possibly that prof—a biophysicist who seemed to work in linear nonequilibrium thermodynamics—was jealous–his work didnt get as much attention.

    So one question is why does 1 person get alot of the recognition (and to some extent, money). Also, how do you decide what is an important result.

    Hilbert and Field’s medal committee sort of decided which are important problems in math. I have a different list of important problems—but many not in hard sciences/math.
    I come across alot of people who also have their own lists of important problems.

    There appears to be a ‘Pareto’s law’ in just about every area (though I think the law is actually more complex)–so 1 or a few persons gets most of the credit. .

    The AAAS forum also had a discussion on whether Nobles have outlived their usefulness. There seemed to be mixed views.
    I guess my view is maybe so (or possibly there should be a ‘gradation’ rather than a ‘winner take all process’—i once to a camp where everyone got a prize—they had to figure what my prize would be –it was for ‘biomes’ since i didn’t do what others did which was study single plants and birds—i just sort of ‘surveyed’ ecosystems —actually called taking a long walk. (then you make a map and show what few plants you could identify grew where, and gave reasons why. That area actually had regions within a few miles that ranged in biomes from semi-desert to semi-subalpine biomes but mostly eastern dry and wet hardwood/pine forests and fields. Shenanadoah park and wv has all these as well or used to.)

    However i might consider some validity for Nobles at leats one time if i get the ‘winner take all’—i get all the Noble prizes for a slam-dunk 1 year–especially if it comes with a ‘pay in advance’ form —they pay first, and you publish later.).

    (as an aside i wonder what if anything you think of the 5th blog post on Fisher’s theorem on johncarlosbaez (at) wordpress.com ).

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