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The road to a Nobel Prize

What constitutes a great medical discovery that benefits humanity? This is the question that the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has been tasked with answering.

"Nobel did not leave us very specific instructions. But he did write that discoveries, and nothing else, should be awarded within medicine. We do not award Nobel Prizes for several smaller achievements or for long and faithful service," says Hans Jörnvall, former secretary of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet.

No, in order to get a Nobel Prize, you have to really reshape current knowledge, so that medical science can take a great step forward.

You then have to make the international science community recognise the greatness of your discovery so that they nominate you as a candidate. Last, but not least, you have to convince the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet; the fifty professors who will finally appoint the laureates.

The Nobel Prizes have been awarded for more than a hundred years. Won't we run out of great discoveries to reward?

"We don't think so, no. For a while, when human genomes were being mapped out, many believed that was it; that most things were now discovered. But then again, that's what they said in 1907, when they had discovered new cells, and in 2107 it will probably be the same," says Hans Jörnvall.

The trickiest part, according to Hans Jörnvall, is not to find great discoveries, but to identify the people behind them.

"Research is becoming more and more of a team effort, and it often involves a lot of people. Our task is to find out who did what. Sometimes, this task is so difficult that we are unable to find all the answers, and some other discovery will be rewarded instead."

It is very rare for the Nobel Assembly's decision to be met with objections, even if some selections have been questioned in light of later discoveries.

"There is at least one prize that was clearly wrong, and that was the 1926 prize awarded to Johannes Fibiger. He was given the prize because he was thought to have proven that stomach cancer can be caused by a parasite living in cockroaches, which is not accepted today," says Anders Bárány at the Nobel Museum.

But most of the prizes stand the test of time and some shine especially bright, such as the 1962 prize awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins for their discovery of the DNA double helix. The Nobel Prize has only become more prestigious over time.

"This success is due to the large sums awarded and the fact that the different assemblies have selected the laureates very carefully. Another important reason has been that the laureates are invited to Stockholm to meet the Royal Family. Many of the laureates have been very moved by this," says Anders Bárány.

But no-one was applauding when the will of Alfred Nobel was first opened, especially not those who had been appointed to realise his plans. Karolinska Institutet did not feel it had sufficient resources and was at first sceptical to the task. A little over a hundred years later, it is a responsibility that is gladly accepted.

"When old professors write their autobiographies, they usually highlight the work in the Nobel Assembly as the most fun part of their career. It is a time when they do not have to struggle with limited research funds and can instead focus on doing something positive for Sweden and for the research community," says Hans Jörnvall.