Nobel season to commence with announcement of medicine prize

Like every year, speculation is rife about the possible winners, given the number of worthy laureates in the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.
Like every year, speculation is rife about the possible winners, given the number of worthy laureates in the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.PHOTO: AFP

STOCKHOLM (AFP) - This year's Nobel season opens on Monday (Oct 2) with the announcement of the medicine prize, turning the page on Bob Dylan's literature prize stunner that stole the spotlight in last year's award season.

Like every year, speculation is rife about the possible winners, given the number of worthy laureates in the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

The Nobel medicine prize committee at the Karolinska Institute is first out to announce its choice of laureates, on Monday at 11.30am (5.30pm Singapore time) at the earliest.

Sweden's newspaper of reference, Dagens Nyheter, suggested American oncologist Dennis Slamon could be honoured for his research on breast cancer and the drug treatment Herceptin.

Or possibly American James Allison, a pioneer in the field of immunotherapy that combats cancer cells and the winner of the 2015 Lasker Prize - often considered the US equivalent of a Nobel medicine prize. If this method were awarded, Dr Allison could share the prize with Dr Arlene Sharpe and Dr Gordon Freeman.

Meanwhile Swedish public radio SR tipped the prize could go to researchers who worked on a cure for Hepatitis C, Dr Ralf Bartenschlager of Germany and Americans Charles Rice and Dr Michael Sofia - a trio also awarded the Lasker Prize, in 2016.

The medicine prize will be followed by the physics prize announcement on Tuesday, with the discovery of gravitational waves regularly mentioned as a possible winner.

Sending ripples through space and time, gravitational waves were first predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago as part of his theory of general relativity, but the first hard evidence of their existence came only in 2015, when two US detectors found the first such signal.

That discovery could however be considered too recent by the Nobel committee.

According to Dagens Nyheter, the jury could instead choose to honour the discovery of exoplanets by Swiss astrophysicians Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz.

On Wednesday, the chemistry prize committee could give the nod to a gene-editing technique known as the CRISPR-Cas9 DNA snipping tool, a type of genetic "scissors" used to cut out a mutated gene in a human embryo and replace it by a corrected version.

But that discovery could also be too early for a Nobel, as a legal dispute rages over who discovered the technique.

It has been claimed on the one hand by the French-American research duo of Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr Jennifer Doudna, and on the other by Chinese-born American Feng Zhang.

Another recurring favourite for the chemistry prize is Dr John Goodenough, a 95-year old electrochemist whose pioneering work led to the invention of rechargeable lithium ion battery present in cell phones, computers and electric cars.

Perhaps the most watched Nobel is the peace prize, the only one to be announced in Oslo and due on Friday.

This year, anti-nuclear efforts could win, some have suggested. Tensions have escalated between Washington and Pyongyang after North Korea's sixth nuclear test, and there is growing uncertainty over the Iran deal, which US President Donald Trump has threatened to tear up.

Two key orchestrators of that accord, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, are seen as strong contenders by the head of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (Prio), Henrik Urdal.

"With North Korea also at stake, it's very important to support initiatives that guard against the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons," he said.

The names of the candidates are kept secret for at least 50 years, but those eligible to nominate candidates - including former laureates, lawmakers and government ministers around the world, and some university professors - are allowed to disclose their choices.

Those believed to be on the list include Syria's White Helmets rescue service, Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and Edward Snowden, who revealed the scope of America's NSA electronic surveillance programme.

On Thursday, at 1pm (7pm Singapore time), the Academy will announce the winner of the literature prize.

The announcement will enable the 18 Academy members to draw a line under the Dylan debacle.  Not only was he the first singer songwriter to win the prestigious award, he also didn’t comment on his win for several weeks and snubbed the formal prize ceremony in Stockholm in December.  The choice sparked the type of publicity the discreet Academy is normally keen to avoid. 

“We shouldn’t expect anything sensational” this year, predicted Clemens Poellinger, literary critic for Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, suggesting the Academy will make a more conservative choice. Among them are Italy’s Claudio Magris, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Canadian author Margaret Atwood, Syrian poet Adonis, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo of the US, Israel’s Amos Oz and David Grossman, Albania’s Ismail Kadare and Haruki Murakami of Japan. 

A newcomer dominating the buzz this year is Chinese novelist Yan Lianke.

The economics prize will be announced on Oct 9.

This year, each Nobel comes with a nine million kronor (S$1.5 million) prize sum, to be shared if several laureates are honoured in the same discipline.