Science and Technology

How the Nobel Prizes in Medicine, Physics and Chemistry have improved our lives

Some professors at Técnico, whose research is related to these scientific areas, tell us about the importance of the discoveries carried out by the Nobel Prize Laureates and how they paved the way for future developments.

Alfred Nobel, Swedish chemist who invented dynamite, set aside 94% of his fortune for the creation of five prizes – the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was established in 1969, by the Sweden’s Central Bank, in memory of Alfred Nobel – that should be given “to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. Year after year, the scientific community eagerly awaits the Nobel Prize laureates in Medicine, Physics and Chemistry. After a lot of expectation, the seven Nobel Prize laureates were announced. Some professors at Técnico, whose research is related to these scientific areas, tell us about the importance of these discoveries and how they paved the way for future developments.

Nobel Prize in Medicine for discoveries related to how the human body senses temperature and touch

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch”. “The groundbreaking discoveries by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have allowed us to understand how heat, cold and mechanical force can initiate the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive and adapt to the world around us”, the jury said.

Tiago Fernandes, professor at the Department of Bioengineering (DBE) and researcher at the Institute for Bioengineering and Biosciences (iBB), confesses that he was surprised with the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize laureates in Physiology or Medicine, “Many people thought that the committee would recognise the work done in the development of RNA vaccines. Anyway, the Nobel Prize is fully deserved”. “This is a paradigmatic case of scientific research initially driven by curiosity, which had a huge practical reach in the medium term”.

David Julius used capsaicin, a pungent compound from chili peppers that induces a burning sensation, to identify a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat. Ardem Patapoutian used pressure-sensitive cells to discover a novel class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs. “These breakthrough discoveries launched intense research activities leading to a rapid increase in our understanding of how our nervous system senses heat, cold, and mechanical stimuli”, the press release says.

“Our ability to feel the heat, cold and touch is essential for the survival of our species, and is at the base of our interaction with the environment”, highlights the DBE professor. “The work carried out by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates has allowed to develop treatments for a wide range of diseases, including, for example, chronic pain”, he adds.

Nobel Prize in Physics for the understanding of complex physical systems

Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi are the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics “for groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of complex physical systems”, with one half jointly to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann “for the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming”, and the other half to Giorgio Parisi “for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales”.

According to Tiago Domingos, professor at IST Department of Mechanical Engineering and researcher at MARETEC, “this Nobel Prize in Physics will inevitably attract young physicists to work in the area of climate change, a serious challenge to human existence, which is at the same time a fascinating problem from a scientific point of view”.

Joana Gonçalves, professor at the Department of Bioengineering (DBE) and researcher at the Laboratory of Instrumentation and Experimental Particle Physics (LIP) stresses “Parisi’s work shows how patterns can be found in the midst of very disorganized, unpredictable and ‘ complex systems. When thinking about a particular problem, he invented a very counter-intuitive technique: instead of breaking the problem into small parts, he multiplied it to understand what was going on as a whole”. According to the LIP researcher “it is important to note that this is not the first time that a Nobel Prize is given to Complex Systems, but it is the first time that the conservative – and sometimes retrograde – Swedish Academy uses the term and assumes it as a fundamental part of Physics, paving the way for this area to have the recognition it has long deserved”.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded for “ingenious tool for building molecules”

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan, “for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis”.

Matilde Marques, professor at IST Department of Chemical Engineering (DEQ) and researcher at Centro de Química Estrutural (CQE), recalls: “Until about two decades ago, most catalysts were either enzymes or metal compounds. Enzymes are biological catalysts that work very well in living organisms, but their widespread application has been prevented by a number of limitations. On the other hand, some metal catalysts show good performance, but their use poses considerable environmental problems, in addition to many requiring difficult working conditions -for example absence of water and oxygen – which are very expensive options for large-scale.

This year, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry rewards a discovery that responds to these challenges “in a way that is almost a ‘Columbus egg’”, stresses professor Matilde Marques. “The two laureates were pioneers in demonstrating that very simple asymmetric organic molecules can catalyze complex enantioselective reactions, with results that rival and even surpass those obtained with enzymes or metal catalysts”.

“It’s amazing to see a colleague I have worked with directly, on a daily basis, for almost 5 years, being awarded at the highest level”, says Nuno Maulide, Técnico alumnus, professor at the University of Vienna and Invited professor at IST/DEQ, about Benjamin List, who was his mentor when he began his academic career at the Max-Planck Institute, in 2009.

The Técnico alumnus highlights the important role of catalysis “not only in the production of new drugs, but also to the entire agrochemical industry, manufacture of cosmetics and materials”.

According to professor Nuno Maulide, this Nobel Prize reinforces the importance that Chemistry has in many areas of our lives and in the development of simpler solutions that have a huge impact on our daily lives. “The technological advances and the solutions to humanity’s biggest problems will crucially depend on Chemistry discoveries”.