In honor of the 2016 Nobel Prizes announced recently, this post is the third in my series of Nobel Women, highlighting the women who've won a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. You can also read my previous posts about the women who've won a Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry.
There have been significantly more Nobel Prizes awarded to women for their work in physiology and medicine than for physics or chemistry combined -- 12 in total. Perhaps this has something to do with more women being able to enter the world of medicine and medical research than in other scientific fields. Or perhaps it is simply a matter of there having been more scientist overall working on understanding physiological mechanisms and searching for answers to medicine's biggest questions.
What I found most interesting while researching the work of these women is how each scientist's discovery laid the foundation for the next scientist's research, and that there is a clear line of women standing on the shoulders of their female predecessors in the quest for scientific knowledge.
Who were these women and what made their research noteworthy to the Nobel Committee?
Gerty Theresa Cori
Gerty Theresa Cori won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947 along with her husband and research partner Carl Ferdinand Cori "for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen."
Gerty and Carl met in medical school and quickly became inseparable, both romantically and professionally. After graduation, Gerty studied blood diseases, but when her father, a chemist who devised a method for refining sugar, developed diabetes, she changed her course of research to learn as much as she could about how the body metabolizes glucose in an effort to understand of how the body produces and stores energy. Her research was the foundation for treatment for diabetes.
Rosalyn Yalow won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1977 "for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones."
Before the 1950s, very little was known about how many hormones secreted by our organs worked as there was no known way to measure their relatively low levels in blood or to study how they worked in the body. Rosalyn Yalow's research on radioimmunoassays -- an extremely sensitive test for specific antigens by making them radioactive -- opened up a revolutionary new era in endocrinology where scientists were able to better understand the causes and nature of a wide range of diseases, leading to a rapid advance in beneficial treatments.
Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1983 "for her discovery of mobile genetic elements."
Working at Cold Springs Harbor during the mid- to late-1940s she was able to research how corn genes operated during development. Preparing for an experiment that required forced mutations, her innate characteristics of thoughtful observation and careful analysis enabled her to see unexpected activity, which of course she began to study, and which eventually led to her revolutionary theory explaining how complex organisms were made of cells that have the same genome but vastly distinct functions -- how a liver cell and a skin cell can have the same genetic information but do completely different jobs.
Rita Levi-Montalcini won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1986 along with Stanley Cohen "for their discoveries of growth factors."
Rita Levi-Montalcini's story is one of the most interesting! As a jew during WWII, she could not continue working in the university lab in Turin, so she did her research on the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos in her bedroom at home. And when her family had to move to Allied-occupied Southern Italy, she moved her research equipment there! The work she did during this time earned her a spot at Washington University in Saint Louis after the war, where she built on her findings, eventually discovering a way to isolate nerve growth factor (NGF) present in cancerous tissues that cause extremely rapid growth of nerve cells in chicken embryos. Her work has led to a greater understanding of how NGF affects cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer's and Schizophrenia.
Gertrude B. Elion
Gertrude B. Elion won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1988 along with Sir James W. Black and George H. Hitchings "for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment."
Until the 1950s, most medicine was derived from substances that occurred naturally -- plants, molds, or chemicals that could be otherwise isolated from nature. Getrude Elion worked to find a systematic way to create new drugs using scientific knowledge of human biochemistry and the mechanism of disease. By finding a way to design new molecules with a specific molecular makeup, she was able to create drugs that could interfere with the DNA in disease cells and interrupt the cell growth. She went on to create drugs to treat cancers such as leukemia, fight viral infections like shingles and chicken pox (she invented Acyclovir!!), and help with organ transplantations. Her work also contributed to the groundwork that ha led to effective treatments for HIV/AIDS.
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1995 along with Edward B. Lewis and Eric F. Wieschaus "for their discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development."
In the late 1970s, very little was known about how complex organisms develop from a single cell embryo. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and her partner Eric Wieschaus spent years researching the development of fruit flies, using forced mutations to try and determine the different stages of development and which part of their DNA correlated to each mutation. Through their diligent work, they were able to identify specific genes involved in different processes during a fruit fly's development -- ground-breaking work that led to a revolution in genetic research.
Linda B. Buck
Linda B. Buck won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2004 along with Richard Axel "for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system."
Linda Buck and Richard Axel solved the mystery about how our sense of smell works by discovering the specific genes for the olfactory sensor neurons in our noses. When we smell something, a protein in our nose changes as an odorant attaches to the receptor, creating an electric signal that is sent to the brain. Different sensors detect different odorants, causing signals to come from specific receptors. Different smells are a collection of a large number of these different signals, caused by the various substances within whatever it is we are smelling, giving us an overall understanding of a specific scent. Scientists are still building on this discovery as they research how both the molecular and genetic mechanisms operate in different species.
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2008 along with Luc Montagnier "for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus."
In 1983, there was a new and deadly retrovirus (a type of virus containing RNA genetic information only, allowing its genes to be incorporated the host cells' DNA) killing thousands of people around the globe. This mysterious retrovirus, discovered by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montaigner, was eventually named Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which is the cause of AIDS. By isolating the genome of this retrovirus, researchers have been able to use genetic-based treatment methods, improving the overall life expectancy of those infected with it, and possibly producing a cure for AIDS.
Carol W. Greider &
Elizabeth H. Blackburn
Carol W. Greider and Elizabeth H. Blackburn were both awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009 along with along Jack W. Szostak "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase."
As DNA research continued, the need for a better understanding of how genetic information was passed along from parent to offspring, and then from cell to cell within the new organism. While the mechanism of DNA replication may have been known for decades, it wasn't until the early 1980s that it was known how chromosomes were able to control how each strand of DNA was copied in full and not damaged. Elizabeth Blackburn (below), discovered that the telemeres -- the caps that lie on each end of a chromosome -- have their own DNA. Working with Jack Szostak, she was able to prove that this DNA provides the protection needed to keep the chromosome from breaking down during replication.
And then, working together, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider (above) discovered the enzyme responsible for producing the DNA of telomeres, telomerase.
By isolating this specific enzyme, they opened up a whole new field for research on telomerase's effect on cellular reproduction and how changes in its structure play a role in the aging process, and how extreme stress -- both physical and psychological -- can have a detrimental effect on the ability of this enzyme to function correctly, causing damage to the cell's DNA. Additionally, several telomerase-specific treatments are being developed for certain types of cancer, with the intention of arresting the abnormal growth in those cells affected.
May-Britt Moser won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2014 along with Edvard I. Moser and John O'Keefe "for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain."
Until recently, very little was known about how we access information on our "mental map" -- the brain's mechanism for storing our location and directing us to other places. In 2005, May-scientists Britt Moser and her husband Edvard I. Moser discovered a cell in a lab rat's brain close to its hippocampus -- the center -- that lighted up whenever the rat passed certain spots within a hexagonal grid within a maze. They speculated that this was part of a navigational mechanism being activated, and eventually discovered that there are different types of these cells in the brain responsible for spatial awareness and how they cooperate to form our mental map.
Youyou Tu won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015 "for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria."
During the 1960s and 70s, at a time in China's history when scientists were vilified, Youtou Tu and her fellow researchers worked in a secret program created to find an effective treatment for a strain of malaria resistant to existing medicine. They began screening thousands of chemical compounds, without success. It wasn't until Youyou Tu had the idea of looking at traditional Chinese herbal remedies for fever that began to see some promising results. Eventually, Youyou Tu was able to extract artemisinin, which inhibits the malaria parasite, leading to a series of new drugs that have had a dramatic impact on patient survival and improved the health of millions of people.
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