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The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded Wednesday morning to three scientists who the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said “harnessed the power of evolution.”

“This year’s Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have been inspired by the power of evolution and used the same principles — genetic change and selection — to develop proteins that solve mankind’s chemical problems,” the academy said.

Half of the prize went to California Institute of Technology chemist Frances Arnold, who in 1993 conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which catalyze chemical reactions. She has since honed the methods used to develop new enzymes. Her enzymes have been used to make make the manufacturing of chemicals — including pharmaceutical drugs — a cleaner, greener process. They’ve also been used to produce biofuels.


Joining a press conference with reporters by phone, Arnold was asked what “playing with evolution” means.

“I get that question a lot,” she said.


The second half of the prize was awarded jointly to George Smith, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, and Gregory Winter, a researcher emeritus at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the U.K.

In 1985, Smith came up with a powerful technique known as phage display. It allows a bacteriophage — a virus that can infect bacteria — to be used to direct the evolution of new proteins. Gregory Winter took that technique and used it to produce antibodies. His goal: produce new drugs that could treat a slew of diseases. The first drug developed using the method, adalimumab, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2002. It’s better known by its brand name, Humira — a blockbuster that has been ranked the best-selling prescription in the world. The immunosuppressive drug is used to treat arthritis, plaque psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, and other conditions.

Nobel Chemistry
The 2018 Nobel Prize laureates for chemistry — Arnold, George Smith, and Gregory Winter — are shown during the announcement at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Wednesday. Jonas Ekstromer/TT via AP

In the years since, phage display has become a powerful tool in drug discovery, used to produce antibodies that can cure metastatic cancer, counteract toxins, and treat autoimmune diseases.

Phage display was used in the development of new cancer drugs such as ramucirumab, sold as Cyramza, and necitumumab, sold as Portrazza. Phage display was also used to develop ABthrax, an antibody approved by the FDA in 2012 to prevent and treat anthrax. Other examples of phage-display-derived drugs: GlaxoSmithKline’s lupus drug Benlysta, Amgen’s bone marrow stimulant Nplate, and Genentech’s macular degeneration drug Lucentis.

“The breakthroughs of Arnold and, separately, Smith and Winter were to make nature’s own processes of evolution occur thousands of times faster, in enzymes and phages, leading to improvements in medicines and biofuels and other products that we use,” Peter Dorhout, president of the American Chemical Society, told STAT.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said those kinds of improvements will continue to come.

“We are in the early days of directed evolution’s revolution, which, in many different ways, is bringing and will bring the greatest benefit to humankind,” the academy said.

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