The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

As usual, there is plenty of disease and disability in the world: depression, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, obesity, autoimmune disease, and so on. As usual, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — supposed to be given for the most useful research — is given for research with no proven benefit to anyone (except career-wise). Once again implying that the world’s best biomedical researchers — judging by who wins Nobel Prizes — either don’t want to or don’t know how to do useful research.

Once again the press release tries to hide this. “From surprising discovery to medical use” reads one heading. If you read the text, however, you learn there is no actual “medical use”. Here’s what it says:

These discoveries have also provided new tools for scientists around the world and led to remarkable progress in many areas of medicine. iPS cells can also be prepared from human cells. For instance, skin cells can be obtained from patients with various diseases, reprogrammed, and examined in the laboratory to determine how they differ from cells of healthy individuals. Such cells constitute invaluable tools for understanding disease mechanisms and so provide new opportunities to develop medical therapies.

Apparently you can make “remarkable progress” in medicine without helping a single person, which says a lot about what passes for medical progress. Although iPS cells are supposedly “invaluable tools” for understanding disease mechanisms, we are not told a single disease that has thereby been understood or a single therapy that has been developed.

The Guardian printed a roundup of responses to the award. I read it eagerly. Maybe one of the comments will explain how the prize-winning work actually helped someone (besides career-wise). After all, Yamanaka, one of the winners, had previously won the Finland Prize, given to research that “significantly improves the quality of human life today and for future generations”. Paul Nurse says the prize-winning work did such-and-such, “paving the way for important developments in the diagnosis and treatment of disease” unfortunately not saying what those “important developments” are. Martin Evans says:

The practical outcome is that now we not only know that it might be theoretically possible to convert one cell type into another but it is also practically possible. These are very important foundation studies for future cellular therapies in medicine.

Emphasis added. Another comment: “These breakthroughs will ultimately lead to new and better treatments for conditions like Parkinson’s and improve the lives of millions of people around the world.” A bold prediction, given that they have not yet improved the life of even one person. Julian Savescu, an ethicist at Oxford, says “This is as significant as the discovery of antibiotics. Given the millions, or more lives, which could be saved, this is a truly momentous award.”

Year after year, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is given for research that, we are told by biologists with huge conflicts of interest, will — no doubt! — be incredibly valuable in the future. Indicating there was no research that might be honored that had already been useful. It is as if you have a baseball award for best hitter but all hitters all over the world strike out all the time so you end up giving the award to people who strike out best. They are the best hitters, you tell credulous sportswriters. They receive the prestigious award for best hitter at an elaborate ceremony, with toasts all around. Nobody says they cannot hit.


4 Responses to “The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine”

  1. dearieme Says:

    I admit to my surprise some years ago when I glanced at the rules and saw that they required the work to have brought benefits, because it’s quite obvious that the prizes are routinely awarded for work that might perhaps contribute to benefits at some time – perhaps distant – in the future.

    Perhaps it’s just another example of the rule that Pure research always drives out Applied.

    Seth: I think Alfred Nobel included the “have benefits” requirement because he didn’t want to have happen exactly what has happened: Scientists decide among themselves, with no regard for anyone else, what research is best. “I don’t want this prize to make them rich while they continue to do exactly what they want to do,” he thought.

  2. Alex Says:

    Donnall Thomas just passed away. His 1990 Nobel for developing bone marrow transplants was definitely for results, not potential. Have you seen a trend away from that, or do you think it’s always been a mix?

  3. L Says:

    nobel prizes are not important. stop trippin!! mother teresa of calcutta won and so did balack obama and all gore w his global warming bullshit!! how the hell dey win!!

    hindi ko alam!!! basta: BUISIT!!!

  4. Tony Mach Says:

    I looked at the medicine Nobels something like two years ago and was puzzled how little positive impact on everyday medicine came from all this brouhaha. A lot of what I call “molecular masturbation”, very fine research no doubt, but with a complete disconnect to finding the causes of the diseases that plague so many of us.

    Medicine as a whole seems “stuck” and in dire need of a paradigmatic shift (if not several). So many little and big barriers (“common knowledge” like sat-fat is bad, the many problems with the research and publishing process, or “big pharma”) that hinder progress in the medical sciences. As more and more people are starting to gain personal experience about things that have a positive (or negative!) result on their very own health (personally I think especially the Paleo thing is going good), there will be some in the medical science that will go down the same path. I sometimes wonder when exactly personal experiments came out of fashion in the medical and biological sciences – your blog is surely an shining example that even as an individual one can make some change.