September 28, 2005

Medicine prize launches Nobel season next week

By Patrick Lannin

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - The Nobel prize for medicine, called
by past winners both an honor and a distraction from research,
heralds the start next week of the century-old season of awards
founded in the will of the inventor of dynamite.

The winner of the 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.3 million)
is to be announced on Monday, October 3 at 0930 GMT.

The physics prize follows on Tuesday, chemistry a day
later, the literature prize is usually announced on the
Thursday of the same week. The peace prize is announced in Oslo
on the Friday and finally economics on the following Monday.

Winning brings prestige and, with it, lots of commitments.

"For me, it means being chosen as a representative of
science, an ambassador," said American Leland Hartwell, joint
winner in 2001 for work on the life cycle of cells.

One of his two co-winners, Briton Tim Hunt, agreed it was
an honor, but added: "The one thing that it does not do is make
life easier as a researcher."

The obligation to give so many talks and make appearances
at conferences and schools meant that "for a while you are, in
effect, sterilised scientifically speaking."

Few of the winners of the medicine prize, first given in
1901 to Germany's Emil von Behring for work on serum therapy,
have become household names outside the world of science.

Some exceptions are Briton Sir Alexander Fleming, who
shared the 1945 prize with Ernst Chain and Sir Howard Florey
for their discovery of penicillin and its curative effect, and
in 1904 Russian Ivan Pavlov -- or perhaps his dogs. They were
conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell.


The prize-giving Nobel Assembly at Stockholm's Karolinska
Institute of medical research has tended to avoid controversy
in its awards -- a rare exception being the case of Portuguese
scientist Egas Moniz, the inventor of the lobotomy.

U.S. relatives of patients who had treatment, which sought
to calm mentally ill patients by severing nerve fibres in the
brain, have demanded the prize be withdrawn. They say it led to
injury or death for their kin.

One pointer to who might be the next laureate is that many
have previously won the prestigious U.S. Lasker Award.

This year's Lasker winners, Canadians Ernest McCulloch and
James Till, carried out work that set the stage for all current
research into adult and embryonic stem cells.

Research into these master cells sparked controversy due to
objections about using human embryos as a source for stem

Doctors hope one day to use embryonic stem cells as a
source of transplants to treat diseases such as cancer and

While the choice of research areas honored tends to avoid
controversy, laureates themselves are not above rolling up the
sleeves of their lab coats for a fight.

In 2003, American Raymond Damadian took out adverts in the
press demanding a share of the prize won by American Paul
Lauterbur and Briton Sir Peter Mansfield for their work in
magnetic resonance imaging for pictures of internal organs.

No noses were put out of joint by 2004's prize to Americans
Richard Axel and Linda Buck for work on the sense of smell.

Apart from the prestige, the money is nice as well.

"My family lives in significantly greater comfort than
before," said Hunt.