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Prize

The 2015 Nobel Prizes

Parasitic diseases and DNA repair are among the recognized research subjects; Scottish economist, Belorussian writer and peace negotiators in Tunisia are laureates

The Irishman William Campbell (far left), the Japanese researcher Satoshi Omura (left) and the Chinese researcher Youyou Tu, in the 1950s and today (above): efficient drugs against tropical diseases

Bill Denison/Drew University|Satoshi Omura/Personal archive|Xinhua|Scientific Women The Irishman William Campbell (far left), the Japanese researcher Satoshi Omura (left) and the Chinese researcher Youyou Tu, in the 1950s and today (right): efficient drugs against tropical diseasesBill Denison/Drew University|Satoshi Omura/Personal archive|Xinhua|Scientific Women

The announcement of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine caused surprise because of the subject and the profile of one of the winners. The search for therapies to treat tropical diseases has been outside the Nobel’s radar for a while, although it was deemed important in the early years of the Prize, in the early 20th century. This year, however, it was recognized through the work of the Irish researcher William C. Campbell, of Drew University in the United States, Japanese researcher Satoshi Omura, at Katasato University, and Chinese researcher Youyou Tu, of the Chinese Academy for Traditional Medicine.

Campbell, 85, and Omura, 80, developed an effective drug to fight two diseases caused by worms — lymphatic filariasis (or elephantiasis) and onchocerciasis, known as “river blindness”. Omura had been studying a group of bacteria, Streptomyces, known to produce compounds with antimicrobial action, since the 1960s. Working in Japan, Omura isolated different strains of Streptomyces, cultivated them in his laboratory and selected 50 with therapeutic potential. In the United States, Campbell verified that one of these cultures was efficient against parasites. He isolated its agent, called avermectin, and modified it chemically in order to obtain a more effective component, ivermectin.

The work had impact principally in developing countries, where the difficulty in preventing and treating parasitic diseases produces dramatic results. “The most important aspect to be stressed in relation to the laureates this year is the fact that the results of their research directly benefited the public, especially the poorest,” commented parasitologist Erney Plessman de Camargo, a professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) Biomedical Sciences Institute.

Angus Deaton, professor da Universidade Princeton: aumento da precisão de indicadores econômicos básicos, como os de renda e pobreza

Angus Deaton, Professor at Princeton University: increase in the precision of basic economic indicators, such as income and poverty

The recognition of Campbell and Omura ended up eclipsing, to a certain extent, the uncommon path of the Chinese researcher, Youyou Tu, 84. She spent most of her career in anonymity, does not have a doctorate and carried out her work in China, with little interaction with other groups. In the 1960s, Tu, then 39, sought a more efficient way to fight malaria through traditional Chinese medicine. China was in the middle of Mao Tse-Tung’s Cultural Revolution when the researcher was tasked with leading a team to find a drug against the disease, which was rampant in the country.

Tu sought information in ancient Chinese medical texts and researched popular remedies. She collected 2,000 potential drugs, from which her team produced 380 extracts of 200 different plants. In 1971, she isolated an active compound in the bush Artemisia annua, which traditional knowledge said could provide relief for the symptoms of the disease. “During the Cultural Revolution, there was no practical way to carry out clinical trials for new drugs. Thus, my colleagues and I volunteered to be the first to take the extract,” recalled Tu in an article written for the journal Nature Medicine in 2011. After verifying that the extract was not toxic, her group went to Hainan province, a region with a high rate of malaria, to test its clinical efficacy in infected patients. Those who took the extract quickly showed no symptoms of malaria. Two years later, her group synthesized a derivative of the compound 10 times more potent than the original extract, leading the way for a new class of antimalarial agents that eliminates the parasite early, in the first stages of its development.

The writer Svetlana Alexievich, a Ukrainian raised in Belarus: rare award granted to a non-fiction author

Elke Wetzig/WikimediaThe writer Svetlana Alexievich, a Ukrainian raised in Belarus: rare award granted to a non-fiction authorElke Wetzig/Wikimedia

The first scientific text written in English on the drug, known as artemisinin, was published in 1979, but its authors remained anonymous, as was common in China at that time. Youyou Tu was only recognized for the discovery recently. Today, malaria affects about 200 million people. It is estimated that artemisinin reduces the mortality of the disease by 20% when administered with other drugs, saving approximately 100,000 lives a year.

The three winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry helped explain the mechanisms that repair the damage constantly suffered by genetic material. The Swedish researcher Thomas Lindahl, 77, of the Francis Crick Institute and the Clare Hall Laboratory, in the United Kingdom, showed that genetic material decays at a rate that should make life on Earth impossible. According to his study, each human cell loses bases, blocks that make up DNA, 10,000 times a day, at a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. He also identified repair mechanisms that remove bases, which continuously counteract DNA collapse. The American researcher Paul Modrich, 69, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Duke University in the United States, demonstrated how the cell corrects errors in cell division via a mechanism known as mismatch repair, which reduces the frequency of errors when DNA replicates. The Turkish researcher Aziz Sancar, 69, of the University of North Carolina in the United States, ascertained how cells repair the damage caused by ultraviolet rays. Defects in this mechanism are behind skin cancer resulting from sun exposure.

The winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics were the Japanese researcher Takaaki Kajita, 56, from the University of Tokyo, and the Canadian Arthur B. McDonald, 72, from Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada. They helped demonstrate that neutrinos, elementary particles of matter that are created in abundance inside the Sun, can change their identity.

Aziz Sancar (left), Thomas Lindahl (below left) and Paul Modrich: mechanisms that repair damage suffered by genetic material

Max Englund/UNC School of Medicine|Duke Photography|The Francis Crick Institute Aziz Sancar (left), Thomas Lindahl (below left) and Paul Modrich: mechanisms that repair damage suffered by genetic materialMax Englund/UNC School of Medicine|Duke Photography|The Francis Crick Institute

Known for studies on consumption, well-being and inequality, the Scottish researcher Angus Deaton, 69, a professor at Princeton University in the United States, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. He helped increase the precision of basic economic indices, including those for income and poverty, by developing models that analyze individual consumer and company data and bringing economic theory and statistical methods closer together. The prize represents an important lesson for economic analysts, according to Eduardo Haddad, a professor in the Economics Department at the University of São Paulo School of Economics, Business Administration and Accounting (FEA-USP). “Deaton shows that you must really know the data with which you are working and all of its vicissitudes,” says Haddad. “This is perhaps the most important phase of empirical work in economics.” According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, Deaton’s studies answered several questions. One of them is: how do consumers distribute their spending among different goods? In the 1980s, the Scottish professor developed a simple, flexible model to estimate the demand for goods. His approach became a standard analytical tool among academics and in economic policy. He also helped answer the question: how is most of society’s income spent and how much is saved? According to Deaton, the analysis of individual consumer data is key to understanding the interaction between income and consumption over time.

The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize was given to the National Dialog Quartet, formed in 2013 by four civil organizations in Tunisia. The Norwegian Nobel Committee highlighted the decisive contribution of the organization to establishing a peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of a civil war, with politically motivated assassinations and general social unrest after the Jasmin Revolution in 2011, which led to the fall of President Ben Ali, who had held the office since 1987.

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature was granted to writer Svetlana Alexievich, 67, born in Ukraine and raised in Belarus.   The Swedish Academy attributed the award “for her polyphonic writing, a monument to suffering and to courage in our times.” None of the author’s works have been published in Brazil. Alexievich’s books describe people who fought in wars such as that in Afghanistan, or were victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which occurred in Ukraine in 1986. Her sister died and her mother became blind due to the accident. This was one of the rare times in which the award was granted to an author of non-fiction works.

The metamorphosis of neutrinos

The Nobel Prize in Physics has rewarded the confirmation that phantom particles change identity and have mass

Arthur McDonald and Takaaki Kajita: confirmation of the mass and flavor transformations of neutrinos in detectors such as that at Sudbury (left)

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory|SNO Collaboration|University of Tokyo Arthur McDonald and Takaaki Kajita: confirmation of the mass and flavor transformations of neutrinos in detectors such as that at Sudbury (left)The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory|SNO Collaboration|University of Tokyo

The two researchers sharing the Nobel Prize in Physics this year coordinated experiments hundreds of meters below the Earth’s surface. The Japanese physicist, Takaaki Kajita, of the University of Tokyo, and Canadian Arthur McDonald, Emeritus Professor at Queen’s University, shared the prize of 8 million Swedish kronor for proving that neutrinos, one of the abundant particles in the Universe, change identity when they travel. According to the physicists, these transformations — flavor oscillations — can only occur if neutrinos have mass. McDonald’s experiment was conducted in a laboratory installed in a mine operated by the Brazilian company Vale.

There are three types — or flavors — of neutrino: electron, muon and tau. Since they do not have electric charge and barely interact with other particles, they are difficult to detect and have been called phantom particles. When a way to observe them was discovered, much fewer were seen than expected.

In 1998, the group coordinated by Kajita at Super-Kamiokande, an observatory installed in a zinc mine in Japan, found that the number of muon neutrinos in the atmosphere that arrived at the detector varied depending on the direction of the source. This result suggested that some of the neutrinos transformed into a flavor that could not be detected there. At the same time, McDonald’s team conducted experiments in Canada that allowed him to count the proportion of the three types of neutrinos generated by the Sun. Comparison of the results showed that these particles did in fact change flavor and had mass.

McDonald’s group carried out experiments at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLab), installed 2,000 meters underground in a nickel mine operated by the Brazilian mining company Vale since 2006. The company provides the space and provides operational and security support for SNOLab. “This Nobel Prize in Physics represents a case in which the academic world benefits from interactions with industry in order to generate knowledge,” says Luiz Mello, executive manager of Innovation and Technology at Vale. “One of Vale’s commitments is to bring together actors from industry and academia.” The company has open-air mines in Brazil in which experiments could perhaps be carried out. “We are open to receiving proposals and identifying how to contribute,” says Sandoval Carneiro Junior, a technical specialist in partnerships and resources at the mining company.

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