The Nobel 2022 and the ghosts of the past

Those of us who believe in the power of ghosts, although not necessarily in ghosts, have no doubt that this year the members of the Royal Swedish Academy received visits from Severo Ochoa and Arthur Kornberg, the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. from 1959.

“Give the 2022 prize to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, the developers of the working principle of messenger RNA vaccines”, those in charge of awarding the prize this year hear at night, between the noise of chains.

Many of us hoped that Karikó and Weissman would receive a Nobel Prize – Chemistry or Medicine – last year; not only because the Covid-19 pandemic gave the opportunity for its discovery to bring benefits to humanity, a necessary condition according to Alfred Nobel’s will, but also because they open up a whole new field of exploration for medicine. But also because, in a certain sense, its discovery was predicted by Severo Ochoa.

From the invisible to the tangible

Ochoa and Kornberg received the Nobel “for their discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid”, which are, respectively, RNA and DNA.

In addition, his prize is one of the very few that has been awarded just a year and a fraction after the discovery was published; in Physiology and Medicine there is only one other, the one from 1950, that fulfills this condition (in Chemistry there are also two, 1930 and 1935, and in Physics there are four: 1914, 1957, 1984 and 1987).

The Nobel Prize in science, in principle, is only awarded when the discovery has proven to be, first, true and, second, and sometimes relegated, beneficial. Thus, one of the fastest was the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics, for superconductivity at “high” temperatures, which was discovered by Bednorz and Müller in January 1986, published in June of that year and recognized with the Nobel Prize in October. of the following year.

The usefulness of superconductivity at temperatures not close to absolute zero was obvious, but in Physiology and Medicine the importance of the discoveries may not be so readily apparent. For example, the Nobel Prize for James Watson and Francis Crick (in which Rosalind Franklin was absent) for the discovery of the structure of DNA, was awarded in 1962, nine years after the publication on April 25, 1953.

In the case of the researcher of Hungarian origin nationalized American Katalin Karikó and her colleague Drew Weissman, the publication occurred in 2005, and its usefulness became evident until 2020, when Pfizer and BioNTech generated the first messenger RNA vaccines, to which Moderna, CureVac, and soon Arcturus followed.

the premonition

It is not clear how the members of the Royal Swedish Academy saw the importance that the works of Ochoa and Kornberg, who by the way were rivals in the race for this discovery, would have; but it is clear that it seemed so obvious to them that they were awarded the prize even before Watson and Crick.

For Severo Ochoa, there was no doubt: on December 11, 1959, at his Nobel lecture, he had a premonition and said: “Since RNA is the genetic material of some viruses, the work reviewed in this conference can help pave the way. pathway for artificial synthesis of biologically active viral RNA and virus synthesis”.

Messenger RNA vaccines are that biologically active viral RNA, and interestingly, the “virus synthesis” you mention is also the basis of other Covid-19 vaccines.

Adenovirus vector vaccines also “debuted” against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, and it is clear that they are a slightly less disruptive development, but equally relevant than those of messenger RNA.

In fact, these types of vaccines, made by CanSino, Johnson & Johnson, the Gamaleya Institute and the University of Oxford with AstraZeneca (replicated by the Serum Institute of India), were the ones that saved the most lives during the pandemic. Especially the last one, since it was the most distributed by the CoVax mechanism, so it is likely that in the week of October 3 to 7 there will be some prize for its development.

That Nobel could be for Physiology or Medicine, but it is also possible that it is for Peace, since it could be given to the World Health Organization for promoting its development, since both the Red Cross and the UN Commission for Refugees they have received the award twice, or even for Bill Gates, who supported the Oxford initiative from the beginning.

Epilogue with chain noise

In ancient Chinese literature, ghosts are not entities to be feared, or should not be, because “it happens that they are cowardly beings: a single brave warrior or a single virtuous lawyer can put to flight an entire army of ghosts”, explains Bernardo Kordon in his anthology Chinese tale. Li Fu-yen, Chen Ki-tsi and others.

Nor was the protagonist of the first Western ghost story recognized as such, and not as a reliable testimony of “another” invisible reality, afraid of them.

As explained by Jacobo Siruela, in his Universal Anthology of the Fantastic Tale, in a story written in the first century by Pliny the Younger, a ghost appears to Athenodorus amid the clanking of chains; Following him, the philosopher discovers the corpse of a chained man whom he proceeds to bury honoring his remains so that he can rest.

Thus, it is possible that the ghost of Severo Ochoa is not trying to scare Swedish academics, but is simply trying to make them see the injustice it would be not to reward the fulfillment of their premonition.

It is possible to speculate on what noise the DNA and RNA chains that accompany this ghost make.

37 billion dollars, or a little less, is estimated that the pharmaceutical company Pfizer generated in 2021 with the Covid-19 vaccine.


RNA vaccines, the best

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The Nobel 2022 and the ghosts of the past