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  Table of Contents  
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 57  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 376-377

Cancer research recognized (and ignored) by the Nobel prizes

Editor Emeritus, Reviews in Agricultural Science, Japan

Date of Submission30-Mar-2020
Date of Decision03-Apr-2020
Date of Acceptance16-Apr-2020
Date of Web Publication14-Sep-2020

Correspondence Address:
Sachi Sri Kantha
Editor Emeritus, Reviews in Agricultural Science
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijc.IJC_251_20

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How to cite this article:
Kantha SS. Cancer research recognized (and ignored) by the Nobel prizes. Indian J Cancer 2020;57:376-7

How to cite this URL:
Kantha SS. Cancer research recognized (and ignored) by the Nobel prizes. Indian J Cancer [serial online] 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 17];57:376-7. Available from:

Among all the awards and prizes offered to scientists, the glamor of being anointed as a recipient of a Nobel prize remains a foremost objective for numerous scientists all over the world.[1],[2],[3],[4] Between 1901 and 2019, the Nobel prizes for medicine/physiology were awarded 110 times to 219 scientists. The Nobel prizes for chemistry were awarded 111 times to 194 scientists. Among these 403 scientists, Tanriverdi et al.[5] have focused their attention on 15 scientists who have been recognized between 1926 and 2018 for their landmark contributions to cancer research. Thumbnail descriptions of what these 15 scientists (all men) had achieved in advancing cancer research are provided.

Whatever worth such Nobel recognition for cancer research has in advancing the discipline, one should not ignore the limitations imposed by the selection process for such recognition. According to Crawford, “The statutes of the Nobel Foundation adopted in 1901 stipulated that no part of the prize deliberations could be made public, nor could a prize decision be appealed.”[2] As such, how about the contributions of cancer scientists who were nominated for the Nobel prize in medicine/physiology, but were unlucky not to receive the award? The contributions of Katsusaburo Yamagiwa (1863-1930) and George Papanicolaou (1883-1962) deserve equal recognition too. Yamagiwa received 7 nominations between 1925 and 1936.[6] An irony is that, Ludwig Aschoff (1866-1942), the professor of pathology at the University of Freiburg, jointly nominated Johannes Fibiger and Yamagiwa for the 1926 prize. Unfortunately, the selection committee awarded the prize only to Fibiger, which later came to be acknowledged as an error in decision making.[2],[7],[8] Papanicolaou was nominated for the prize 18 times, between 1948 and 1953, for his pioneering technique in diagnosing carcinoma in uterus from vaginal smears.[9]

I mention a few notable omissions also. There are few Nobelists in medicine/physiology who did receive the award for their contributions to other specific themes, but they also had reported their studies in cancer. Two “Alberts” belong to this category.

One was Albert Claude (1898-1983), the 1974 co-Nobelist in medicine, while working at the Rockefeller Institute, New York, had interested himself in studying the cellular components in late 1930s. In his 1974 Nobel lecture, he had passingly mentioned the following.

“A year or so before, I had collaborated with Dean Burk and Winsler in providing them a material of interest to them, Chicken Tumor No 10, which they used in their studies of the respiratory function in tumor cells. We started experimenting, although they were but mildly impressed by the scientific value of my project, as they told me years later.”[10]

Another was Albert Szent Gyorgyi (1893-1986), the 1937 Nobelist in medicine recognized “for his discoveries in connection with the biological combustion process with special reference to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid.” During his post-Nobel award phase of research, Szent Gyorgyi did publish quite a number of papers on cancer.[11]

Apart from these two “Alberts,” not to be forgotten was the theoretical postulate proposed by Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) on creating “magic bullets” as potential weapons for use in therapeutic cancer.[12],[13] As eulogized by his namesake Paul Karrer (a 1937 co-Nobelist in chemistry) on Ehrlich birth centenary, Ehrlich also conducted studies on the virulence of mouse tumors. Karrer further noted, “Ehrlich embraced the idea that cancer is due to some sort of parasite, comparable to bacteria, a view that still survives in the idea that tumors result from a virus.”[14]

All told, as Elisabeth Crawford had opined, “The winner-take-all mentality should be questioned because it masks the realities of doing science in the late 20th century.”[2],[15] Therefore, considering its limitations in the nomination and selection processes, as presented eloquently by Goran Liljestrand (1886-1968), the Nobel prizes have turned out to be a poor yardstick to measure the immense contributions of scientists to all disciplines of biology, if not cancer science, in the 20th and 21st centuries. Liljestrand [Figure 1] should have known, because he served as the Secretary of the Nobel Committee of the Karolinska Institute for 40 long years!
Figure 1: Goran Liljestrand (1886-1968) Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photographer unknown

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Here is a snippet of Liljestrand's reminiscence, as revealed in 1962.

“On a journey abroad, I was once asked by a prominent colleague whether he would be permitted to ask a question.

'Certainly,' I replied.

'Well,' he said, 'I have been told that I have been proposed for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.'

'Since all such nominations are strictly confidential,' I countered, 'I am afraid I cannot discuss the subject.'

'That is a pity,' he exclaimed, 'for I should like to know why I haven't received the prize.' “[1]

  References Top

Liljestrand G. The prize in physiology or medicine. In: The Nobel Foundation, editor. Nobel – The Man and His Prizes. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Co; 1962. p. 131-343.  Back to cited text no. 1
Crawford E. Nobel: Always the winners, never the losers. Science 1998;282:1256-7.  Back to cited text no. 2
Feldman B. The Nobel Prize – A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige. New York: Arcade Publishing; 2000. p. 270-2.  Back to cited text no. 3
Breithaupt H. The Nobel prizes in the new century – interview with Ralf Pettersson, former chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee for Physiology/Medicine. EMBO Rep 2001;2:83-5.  Back to cited text no. 4
Tanriverdi O, Tasar M, Yilmaz M, Durak MF, Sezer SB, Demir H, et al. Important milestones for cancer at the Nobel prize. Ind J Cancer, 2020 [this issue].  Back to cited text no. 5
Fujiki H. Gist of Dr. Katsusaburo Yamagiwa's papers entitled 'Experimental study on the pathogenesis of epithelial tumors' (I to VI reports). Cancer Sci. 2014;105:143-9.  Back to cited text no. 6
Stolley PD, Lasky T. Johannes Fibiger and his Nobel prize for the hypothesis that a worm causes stomach cancer. Ann Intern Med 1992;116:765-9.  Back to cited text no. 7
Pai SA, Sri Kantha S. CIA, MoSSAD, NKGB and SURETE in medical research – The RAW truth. Natl Med J India 2019;32:311-2.  Back to cited text no. 8
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Papanicolaou GN. The cell smear method of diagnosing cancer. Am J Public Health Nations Health 1948;38:202-5.  Back to cited text no. 9
Albert Claude – Nobel Lecture. Nobel Media AB 2020. 2020. Available from: izes/medicine/1974/claude/lecture/. [Last accessed on 2020 May 16].  Back to cited text no. 10
Szent Gyorgyi A. The living state and cancer. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1977;74:2844-7.  Back to cited text no. 11
Strebhardt K, Ullrich A. Paul Ehrlich's magic bullet concept: 100 years of progress. Nat Rev Cancer 2008;8:473-80.  Back to cited text no. 12
Kaufmann SHE. Paul Ehrlich: Founder of chemotherapy. Nat Rev Drug Discov 2008;7:373.  Back to cited text no. 13
Karrer P. Paul Ehrlich. J Chem Educ 1958;35:392-6.  Back to cited text no. 14
Anonymous. Prizes like the Nobel are unjust – and bad for science. The Scientist (Philadelphia) 1988. p. 9.  Back to cited text no. 15


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