Two local scientists predicted to win Nobel Prize


By Ashley Mackin

For the past 11 years, Thomson Reuters has issued predictions as to who will win the Nobel Prize in science categories, as “Citation Laureates.” This year, two La Jolla-based scientists are included on that list in the “Medicine” category.

Tony R. Hunter of the Salk Institute of Biological Studies and Erkki Ruoslahti of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute are predicted to win for their cellular-based medical research.

The “official” Nobel announcement regarding the winner will be Oct. 8 at 11:30 a.m. from Stockholm, Sweden.

A press release issued by Thompson Reuters explained the process by which the scientists are chosen. “Based on a thorough review of citations to their research, the company names these high-impact researchers as Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates and predicts them to be Nobel Prize winners, either this year or in the future,” the release stated.

“Our Citation Laureate selection process operates much like the Nobel Foundation’s selection process,” Thomson Reuters citation analyst David Pendlebury said in the release. “We recognize fundamental discoveries and identify the most important contributors to these discoveries. Our Citation Laureates have made such important contributions to science that we believe them to be peers of the Nobel Prize winners in every way; they simply have yet to win.”

In 2011, Thompson Reuters correctly predicted nine of the winners.

Hunter was suggested because of his research in cell signaling and control. His 40 years of research in how cancer cells work has lead to the development and approval of over 10 cancer treatment drugs.

In researching the mechanisms of cancer and tumors, Hunter and his team discovered what he refers to as a switch. This switch, when turned on, tells cells when to grow and divide.

“What we found was, cancer viruses use this switch as one of the ways in which they cause the cancer cells to proliferate in an uncontrolled manner,” Hunter explained. He also said normal healthy cells can turn the switch on and off. “They turn it on when they want to grow and divide and turn it off again. What these cancer viruses were able to do were to turn the switch on permanently, so they’re always dividing,” he said.

The medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration over the last 10 years target the individual enzymes that carry this switch throughout the body. “These drugs are part of the arsenal one can use in treating cancer,” Hunter said.

From here, Hunter said, he and his team are, “still trying to understand how cancer cells are different from normal cells, to learn what their vulnerabilities are, what one might target in developing yet further cancer drugs.”

While humbly doubtful that he will win the Prize, he said he is very excited and felt privileged to be suggested.

Ruoslahti is also being predicted for his cancer research at the cellular level.

“Inspired by ideas put forward by my supervisor and other professors at Caltech – where I worked as an aspiring researcher – I set out to discover the factors that cells use to attach them to their surrounding tissue, keeping them where they’re supposed to be. I felt that breakdown of this glue was likely to allow cancer cells to migrate [and] metastasize to distant sites in the body,” he said.

After 20 years of research, the validity of this theory was proven, and has led to the development of a synthetic compound that block or encourage cell attachment. “Applications of these discoveries range from keeping clogged arteries open to getting artificial organs to integrate with living cells to delivering drugs to a site of disease like a guided missile,” Ruoslahti said.

He added, “I am excited about the newest applications, [such as] the guided missile delivery of drugs. Some of this is in clinical trials for the treatment and diagnosis of cancers.” Ruoslahti also said there are more being studied on animals that should soon enter into clinical trials.

In addition to continuing cancer research, Ruoslahti and his team are using similar technology to improve treatments of heart attacks, strokes and tissue injuries.