Randy Katz: The 2018 Nobel Prizes and use-inspired research

Randy Katz headshot

Randy Katz is the UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research. He writes that university researchers must explore use-inspired research that considers the endeavor’s relevance to real world issues. (UC Berkeley photo by Noah Berger)

There are some things you can just count on: The sun will rise and set, summer will turn to fall, and brilliant scientists with a Berkeley pedigree will win Nobel Prizes.

Last Monday, Jim Allison, who performed his award-winning research as director of Berkeley’s Cancer Research Laboratory, was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Just two days later, Frances Arnold, who conducted her doctoral work here under the guidance of Professor Emeritus Harvey Blanch, took home the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This week, Paul Romer, who was a professor at Berkeley in the 1990s, won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

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As Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research, I was heartened and invigorated when I heard the news. It is sometimes said that you don’t win a Nobel Prize for confirming anything conventional; you win it for advancing knowledge against a chorus of calls from the scientific community that “it will never work” and “it can’t be done!” This year’s Nobelists are a testament to the fact that our university continues to stand for both excellence and for challenging the status quo.

Since last week, I’ve also been reflecting on how the work of both Allison and Arnold exemplifies an important approach to scientific inquiry that we cherish here – an approach known as use-inspired research.

Traditionally, most academic research has been classified as either basic – that is, curiosity-driven and meant to create new knowledge within a field – or applied, performed in the service of some practical need or goal. But use-inspired research breaks this dichotomy; it characterizes the work of scientists who search for fundamental knowledge, yet select questions and methods based on their relevance to real-world issues.

One of our great aims is to bring together a broad set of the world’s brightest minds to work on the pressing problems of the day.”

– Randy Katz

Perhaps the best example of use-inspired research is that of the 19th century French scientist Louis Pasteur, whose studies were carried out at the behest of the French wine industry…but whose line of inquiry created the entire discipline of microbiology and forever changed the way we view disease. Two of our 2018 Nobelists offer other instances of this approach at work.

In the work that won him his prize, Jim Allison – now at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas – had a clear use-inspired goal: to defeat cancer by using the body’s own immunization defense to attack cancerous cells. In foundational work done at Berkeley in the 1990s, he was able to unlock the secrets of how the immunological system works, and to discover how to block the basic mechanism a cancer cell uses to protect itself from attack by our bodies’ T-cells: the so-called Checkpoint Cascade.

His work didn’t stop there, as Allison wanted to translate this work from the lab into practical therapies. His patent led to the development of the Yervoy drug for treating melanoma, a very aggressive cancer that heretofore was often a death sentence. In his memoir, Allison describes meeting a patient who had been diagnosed with terminal skin cancer, but whose cancer was in complete remission due to early treatment with Allison’s immunotherapy drug. He reported breaking down in tears. Helping Berkeley do well by doing good, the patent generated many tens of millions of dollars for our campus, too – providing a source of support for faculty teaching and research that became essential when the recession hit a few years later.

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Francis Arnold, today a professor at Caltech, also pursued basic but use-inspired research in the work that won her the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Her goal was to synthesize devilishly complex biochemical structures, called enzymes, that speed up chemical reactions. Many scientists hoped to enable new biochemical reactions by creating these new kinds of enzymes, but the inherent complexity of the structures made the task incredibly complicated. Arnold pursued a novel approach known as directed evolution: By introducing random mutations into the structure of enzymes, keeping only those that led to improved chemical functionality, and then iterating the process for further improvement, she mimicked nature’s approach for creating complex yet effective structures (albeit in a much shorter period of time!). In a breakthrough in the early 1990s, Arnold perfected this technique and demonstrated its capability by developing a new variation of a solvent that performed literally hundreds of times better than the original. New stain fighting cleaners in your laundry detergent are just one of many practical applications of her research.

Berkeley is no Ivory tower, and there are countless other examples of this type of research being conducted today on our campus and by our alumni. One of our great aims is to bring together a broad set of the world’s brightest minds to work on the pressing problems of the day, to critically examine the accepted wisdom of the scientific community, and to eagerly translate breakthroughs into practical applications that affect people’s lives in profound ways. Interestingly enough, this is exactly the kind of innovation and its impact on economic development that has been the research focus of our third 2018 Berkeley-affiliated Nobelist, Paul Romer. It is why we as a university need to foster a vibrant environment for innovation and entrepreneurship on and near our campus.

In future columns I’ll expand on other approaches to research at Berkeley and discuss how research itself fits with our teaching mission, but for now, I hope you’ll join me celebrating the achievements of three creative, talented, and driven members of our community who can now proudly claim the title of Nobel laureate. Fiat Lux!

Updated 10/15/18: This article was revised to more accurately describe how revenue earned by UC Berkeley from a patent for Jim Allison’s Ipiluminab drug was spent by the campus.