Thursday, September 24, 2009

MRI, solar cells, aging work lead Nobel predictions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scientists who discovered the secrets of how cells age, who made efficient solar cells possible and whose work led to real-time imaging of the brain are all leading contenders for Nobel prizes, Thomson Reuters predicted on Thursday.

Researchers at Thomson Scientific also named scientists who figured out how certain messages are carried in cells, who made quantum computers possible and economists specializing in monetary policy.

Names include Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California San Francisco, who helped discover telomeres, the little caps on the end of chromosomes that keep genetic material from unraveling and whose natural fraying underlies aging and cancer.

"It has Nobel Prize written all over it," said Thomson's David Pendlebury, who makes the predictions each year.

Pendlebury's team named Seiji Ogawa of the Hamano Life Science Research Foundation in Tokyo, Japan, for discoveries leading to functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, now widely used in science from simple psychology to neurology.

Michael Gratzel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology was named for the chemistry prize for inventing dye-sensitized solar cells, now known as Gratzel cells. "He was a pioneer in inventing a new kind of organic solar cell," Pendlebury said.

Physics contenders include Juan Ignacio Cirac of the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, and colleagues whose work has made possible quantum computers -- immeasurably fast computers that make use of the weird qualities found in quantum physics such as the ability of a particle to be in two states at once.

For economics, Pendlebury favors Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich in Switzerland for work in behavioral economics, including issues of preferences, fairness and cooperation.


Every year, the organization, part of the parent company that owns Reuters, predicts likely winners of the Nobel prizes in medicine, chemistry, physics and economics, based in large part on how often other researchers use their work as a basis for their own.

Last year, Thomson correctly predicted one of the chemistry winners, Roger Tsien, whose work led to the widespread use of a green-glowing jellyfish protein, and economist Paul Krugman for his theories of international trade.

The group also accurately predicted the 2007 Nobel prizewinners in medicine and physics.

Pendlebury said the work was more science than art.

"Our approach is focused on the citation histories of these people," he said in a telephone interview.

Every time a researcher does a study, he or she cites previous research that formed the basis for the work or gave an idea. "The citations serve as markers or signals to us about whose work the scientific community most values," Pendlebury said.

"As you compile thousands of citations, you begin to figure out which people have been most influential in the scientific community."

The process is not the same as that used by the Nobel committee, which will begin naming the winners of the prizes the first week of October.

"They have a very strict process that they have followed for many years where they invite nominations," Pendlebury said.