4 EU-funded Nobel Laureates whose research changed our lives
The 25th anniversary of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) is the perfect occasion to delve deeper into some of the groundbreaking discoveries of four MSCA-backed Nobel Prize winners, and to look at how their research, alongside Marie Curie’s, has changed our world for the better.
In 1996, inspired by the scientific legacy of Marie Curie, the European Commission rebranded all its research mobility programmes under one umbrella scheme — the Marie Curie Actions. In 2014, the programme was renamed the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions to highlight Marie’s Polish heritage and highlight the diversity of European science. The MSCA funding programmes provide doctoral education and postdoctoral training to a wide range of researchers.
Since the programme was launched, the MSCA have supported over 145,000 researchers of 160 nationalities, hosted in over 100 countries. Following in the footsteps of Marie Curie herself, 12 of these researchers are now Nobel Prize Laureates. She remains the only female double Nobel Laureate in the world.
To mark the 25th anniversary of the MSCA, we celebrate some recent MSCA-backed Nobel Prize winners and their life-changing research.
1. Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 — building molecules and simplifying pharmaceutical production
This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Benjamin List and David MacMillan. They developed an ingenious tool for building molecules: asymmetric organocatalysis. The researchers, who are supervising the MSCA projects SusCat and PhotoChemBio respectively, have designed simple, cheap and environmentally friendly catalysts that can be used to drive a huge variety of chemical reactions. The concept is as simple as it is brilliant.
According to a 2015 estimate, catalysis contributes to 35% of the world’s GDP. Organocatalysis has had a significant impact on pharmaceutical research, which frequently requires asymmetric catalysis. This technique is already widely used to produce curative drugs such as oseltamivir, an anti-viral drug used to treat respiratory infections, and paroxetine, which treats depression and anxiety. Dr List and Dr MacMillan’s discovery means that the production processes for these drugs have been greatly simplified, with few substances lost or wasted during the sequence reactions. Oseltamivir, for example, now only takes five steps to produce, while it previously took 12.
2. Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 — rewriting the code of life
The former coordinator of the MSCA project ENLIGHT-TEN ITN, Emmanuelle Charpentier, together with her colleague Jennifer Doudna, developed the technique of gene editing known as CRISPR/Cas9. Described as ‘a tool for rewriting the code of life’, these ‘genetic scissors’ enable scientists to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site and insert another piece of DNA into the break. They can therefore change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extreme precision. Unsurprisingly, such a revolutionary tool has given rise to an incredible spectrum of applications.
The use of CRISPR in medical diagnostics could have a tremendous impact by giving people better access to tests that can detect serious diseases. CRISPR is already being used to treat sickle cell anaemia, a genetic disorder whose previous treatment options only relieved symptoms.
CRISPR is also being used in bioenergy to replace fossil fuels as well as to produce lab-grown meat, thereby cutting methane emissions. By genetically engineering plants, CRISPR can also help crops withstand long periods of drought caused by rising temperatures worldwide.
3. Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 — capturing life in atomic detail and accelerating the development of vaccines
In 2017, Richard Henderson, former coordinator of the MSCA project Membrane Proteases, received along with Jacques Dubochet and Joachim Frank the Nobel Prize in Chemistry ‘for developing cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution’. In simple terms, Henderson and his colleagues developed a technology that ‘captures life in atomic detail’. The researcher explains that ‘just like we can take a photograph of humans using light, cryo-EM can take a photograph of molecules using electrons’.
Scientists recently used this tool to map the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus using some 3,000 images. Ten years ago, this process would have taken weeks or even months, but now it can be done in under 24 hours. Mapping the virus and therefore understanding its structure, accelerated the development of vaccines around the world, helping save millions of lives during the pandemic.
Reflecting on his work, Henderson stated that ‘a lot of the work in the lab is basic biology that develops completely unknown ideas that give revolutionary improvements in health and wealth’.
To conclude, it seems that often the simplest ideas are the most difficult to imagine and put into practice. Dr Tiago Brandão Rodrigues, Portugal’s Minister for Education and former MSCA fellow, believes that the MSCA programme allows researchers ‘to increase mankind’s level of knowledge or quality of life with their Eureka moment, and that is something unique’.
On the 25th anniversary of the Marie Curie-Skłodowksa Actions, we can be confident that the hard work and the ‘Eureka moments’ of the diverse and thriving MSCA research community will continue to deepen humanity’s understanding of the world around us.