Podcast Transcript - Jeremy Berg on Nobel Prizes

Interview with Dr. Jeremy Berg regarding the Nobel Prize
October 2, 2007

Carlson: Hi, I’m Emily Carlson. It’s October second, and we’re just days away from finding out who will win the 2007 Nobel Prizes. To tell us more about the prizes honoring basic biomedical research is Dr. Jeremy Berg, director of NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, or NIGMS. Dr. Berg, what kinds of breakthroughs in basic biomedical research are recognized with a Nobel Prize?

Berg: Well sometimes they are for really new discoveries, just something that seems to come out of nowhere that really changes the whole landscape. So an example of that was researchers looking at how a little worm develops, discovered a process of genetically controlled cell death. Some cells divide and then die and they have genes that specifically instruct them when to do that. This turns out to have huge implications for developmental biology obviously, but also cancer, cancer therapy, many other diseases. Other Nobel Prizes go to recognize solutions to long-standing problems. So problems, which have been around for decades in many times and people knew they were of fundamental importance but no one had been able to solve them. Other times they go to scientists who have made many, many contributions over time which together build a body that has really changed the field. One example of the last sort of prize was Professor E.J. Corey who had developed many, many synthetic methods over decades but also had been one of the real leaders in developing a rational framework for thinking about organic synthesis including the development of computer methods which are now much more widely used as computers have become much more powerful.

Carlson: NIGMS has supported the prize-winning work of 62 scientists. Why have so many of our grantees won Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine and chemistry?

Berg: Well, NIGMS, very much like the Nobel Foundation takes a very broad view of biomedical research and chemical research. So while we’re supporting research that is relevant to medicine, a lot of times it relates to very fundamental processes in cell biology or development of new synthetic methods, chemical methods, which can be used to explore new molecules for making new drugs and so on. This approach has been a very powerful engine for new discoveries. So many of the examples which I cited before were discovered because of taking this very broad view, rather than being more narrowly focused on things where the applications are much clearer from the beginning.

Carlson: Were you surprised that Andrew Fire and Craig Mello won last year’s Nobel Prize for their discovery of RNA interference?

Berg: Not really, actually it was predicted by a number of people including myself as a likely winner. It’s really remarkable, this particular discovery, since the work they were cited for was less then a decade old and that’s remarkably fast on the Nobel time scale or really any other time scale. On the other hand it was clear that this was a very special sort of discovery. They discovered by looking at, or actually really following up a control experiment that didn’t work out the way anybody expected, they discovered this special role for this whole class of RNA molecules that first off led to a whole series of really powerful research tools, is leading to the development of completely new approaches to the development of drugs, and has uncovered all sorts of biology that no one would have anticipated beforehand. On the one hand it’s surprising that in less than a decade it was cited, on the other hand it was pretty clear to everybody that this had such a big impact that it was going to win one day and that day might as well be soon given how powerful it was becoming.

Carlson: For more than 25 years, NIGMS has supported the work of Roger Kornberg, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in chemistry. What does this suggest about the pace of scientific discovery and the value of supporting it over time?

Berg: Dr. Kornberg’s discovery was of the structure of RNA polymerase was really as you say, many decades in the making. This was an example of something where the problem was very clear; RNA polymerase had been identified back in the 60s as being the sort of key enzyme in converting the genetic information into action. So it was a very well recognized problem. Also enough work had been done that it was clear that it was a very, very complicated enzyme. And the methods that were available (biochemical, structural, etc.) were just not ready to tackle something this complicated. But over decades he sort of chipped away at the problem, developed new methods, improved things along the way, and eventually breakthroughs were made so that he could actually determine the structure really at very high resolution so we can now get a clear picture of how this enzyme works and that lays the foundation for understanding its regulation and many aspects of gene regulation. It certainly makes the case that you have to be patient. I mean both funding agencies have to be patient; scientists have to be tremendously patient. It’s not as if he was working for 25 years waiting for something to happen, there was sort of steady progress along the way and people were hopeful that he would eventually get into the end zone and that’s what happened.

Carlson: I see you have a signed and sealed envelope. Are those your predictions about who might win the prize this year?

Berg: Indeed they are, it’s signed and sealed and we’ll see how I do next week. I don’t want to say too much, but let me just say, one of them is for really the invention of a new class of methods, a new set of molecules which have had broad impact in cell biology and many other areas of biomedical research. And the other is for the prediction of and then discovery of a class of molecules that play a series of important roles in biology and have had a big understanding of the genetic basis of disease. So we’ll see what happens next week.

Carlson: We will indeed, thank you very much.

Berg: Well, thank you.