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2011 Nobel Prize Predictions Roll In

21 September 2011 4:43 pm
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Are cancer researchers Brian Druker, Nicholas Lydon, and Charles Sawyers becoming the Jon Hamms of the science world? Hamm, the suave star of the TV hit Mad Men, is a perennial favorite to win an Emmy award—television acting's top prize. Now, according to predictions released today, Druker, Lydon, and Sawyers are among the best bets to win science's most prestigious prize—the Nobel—next month. But prognosticators take note: despite his popularity with the oddsmakers this year, Hamm didn't get his long-awaited Emmy.

The Nobel Prize predictions come from David Pendlebury, an analyst with science publisher Thomson Reuters, which operates the academic database Web of Knowledge. And he isn't alone: A number of science blogs—including ChemBark and Everyday Scientist—have also thrown down their favorites to take home the medallions, which will be announced starting on 3 October.

"This is the Oscars for nerds," says Paul Bracher, a chemist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who maintains the chemistry-themed blog ChemBark.

Pendlebury began his tradition of picking Nobel Prizes in 1989. He wrote an article for the magazine The Scientist detailing 20 likely picks for future awards in the category of physiology or medicine. He expanded to making annual stabs in 2002 in three other categories: chemistry, physics, and economics. "Since I wrote that article in 1989, there have been only 2 years when we didn't get at least one Nobel Prize," he says.

The Thomson Reuters team's predictions revolve around one thing: citations. Perusing Web of Knowledge, Pendlebury and colleagues tally up scientists in key fields whose papers have been referred to most often by their peers. With a bit of culling—pinpointing the scientists who are still living and who have made fundamental discoveries, for instance—Pendlebury draws up a short catalog of "Citation Laureates": men and women with the portfolio of a laureate minus the title.

Pendlebury would put his money on three cancer, and particularly leukemia, researchers to win the physiology or medicine prize this year or in the next few years: Druker, of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland; Lydon, formerly of the healthcare company Novartis; and Sawyers, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

The trio was integral in developing the drugs imatinib and dasatinib, which shut down certain proteins that are responsible for the rapid division of cancer cells. Each also won a Lasker Award, often considered the precursor to a Nobel win, in 2009.

But Bracher, who recently rolled out similar predictions, suggests that citations alone may not be a good predictor. Nobel committees tend to look at scientists with single, big discoveries to their names, he says—not necessarily researchers with the widest body of work. Bracher peppers his own list of exceptional chemists with tongue-in-cheek "Vegas-style" odds. He's betting that Stanford University physical chemist W. E. Moerner—his 6-to-1 favorite who is absent from Pendlebury's list—will nab the physics or chemistry honor this year. Moerner pioneered an influential technique for studying lone molecules such as proteins known as single molecule spectroscopy.

Come 5 October, Bracher says he hopes to live-blog the chemistry announcements like he did last year. If that sounds a bit like the sort of coverage that the Oscars or Emmys get, the irony isn't lost on him: "There's an element of ridiculing that."

Still, predictions do add suspense. "It makes it way more exciting because you've written things down, people have commented, and fights have started," says Everyday Scientist's Sam Lord, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Scientists topping the prediction charts, however, have something in common with smooth actors riding an Emmy buzz: They try to stay humble. Thomson Reuters predicts that biomedical engineer Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge could win for his work in regenerative medicine. But Langer just says: "It's an honor to even be mentioned for something like that, but I'd be very, very surprised to be selected."

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