The news broke Monday that three American scientists – Dr. Thomas Südhof of Stanford, Dr. Randy Schekman of University of California at Berkeley and Dr. James Rothman of Yale University have won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
As the San Jose Mercury explained, the three scientists, working separately, figured out how a cell organizes its internal transportation system, controlling the creation and release of important hormones and enzymes. They showed how this cellular cargo is delivered to the right place at the right time. Breakdowns in this trafficking system lead to neurological diseases, diabetes, immunological disorders and ultimately death.
While the three researchers’ amazing discoveries are to be celebrated as Nobel-worthy, the announcement likely is final proof that the selection committee will never right the grievous wrong of not awarding the most prestigious prize to Canada’s Dr. James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch who, in the early 1960s, proved the existence of stem cells – a truly paradigm-shifting moment in medical research.
Every October many Canadian medical scientists hope to see this mistake corrected. Every year they are disappointed.
“Bun” McCulloch’s chance to win is gone: he died two years ago and the Nobel is not awarded posthumously. However, his research partner, Jim Till, is alive and well – no doubt due in large part to the fact he is life-long avid curler – in Toronto.
Many thought that the Till oversight would have been corrected in 2012 when Stockholm decided to award the Nobel to Japan’s Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who showed how to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in 2006 (with mice) and 2007 (with humans). However, Dr. Yamanaka’s co-winner last year was the United Kingdom’s Sir John Bertrand Gurdon, for his pioneering work in the late 1950s in nuclear transplantation and cloning. Dr. Till, who could have been the third laureate in a cell-based triple play, was once again left out.
Canada, in fact, has not won a Nobel Prize in Medicine since Sir Frederick Banting captured the prize (with Scotland’s J.J.R. Macleod) in 1923 for discovering insulin. Canadian-born medical researchers who did their work elsewhere have won during that nine-decade Nobel drought, but no native son or daughter who did their groundbreaking work in Canada has made the trip to Sweden for the acceptance ceremony.
We have, of course, won in other categories. For example, the late Dr. Michael Smith, a British-born Canadian, won the Nobel for Chemistry in 1993 for his efforts in developing site-directed mutagenesis. But the Physiology and Medicine prize? Nothing in 90 years.
It is not merely Canadians who, every October, can’t comprehend this oversight. Dr. David Scadden, who co-founded and co-directs the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, has said he can’t fathom why Till and McCulloch were overlooked, noting that, “Till and McCulloch clearly are giants. They clearly paved the way and made this whole field (of stem cells).”
But while it would be enough to give the True North an inferiority complex, the simple truth is many giants in medical research have been overlooked by the Nobel selection committee. A book due for publication later this year or in early 2014 tells the stories of more than a dozen such titans from around the world who got the cold shoulder. Pioneers of Medicine Without a Nobel Prize, to be published by Imperial College Press, includes chapters on Sir Archibald E. Garrod, the founding father of biochemical genetics, Sir William Richard Shaboe Doll, who linked smoking and lung cancer, Dr. Albert Sabin, who developed an oral polio vaccine, and heart transplant pioneers Drs. Christiaan Barnard and Norman Shumway. Also featured are Drs. Inge Edler and Hellmuth Hertz, for their development of ultrasound for clinical use, Drs. Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, who came up with recombinant DNA, and Dr. Akira Endo, who discovered statins.
It will, of course, include a chapter on Till and McCulloch.