Nobel Laureates and their Patents

Scientists discover, publish, and get prizes – The Nobel prize being one of the most prestigious. Inventors invent and patent their inventions. This is the world of discovery and invention, in a nutshell. However, often, scientists also invent and obtain patents. Sometimes the patents might not have anything to do with the work for which they have received the Nobel prize. Let us now explore Ada Yonath and her patents in this sixth article of the series on Nobel laureates and their patents.

Curiosity and tenacity. That seems to be the recipe for scientific research, according to Ada Yonath a crystallographer best known for her pioneering work on the structure of the ribosome. Her Nobel citation states that she was awarded the Nobel prize for “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.” She shared her 2009 Nobel prize in Chemistry with Venkataraman (Venki) Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz.

Living bodies are made up of a large variety of proteins and each has a specific function. They make up the structural components of our cells and tissues as well as many enzymes, hormones and the active proteins secreted from immune cells. Body proteins are continually being repaired and replaced throughout life. A living being needs a large number of proteins to function. Ribosomes are found within all cells, and they are macromolecular machines. They perform biological protein synthesis. Proteins are made of amino acids. Ribosomes link amino acids together in the order specified by messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules.

Thus, to study the functions of RNA, a knowledge of the structure of ribosomes is essential. The means of knowing and understanding the structures of compounds is X-ray crystallography. Ribosomes are large molecules, lack internal symmetry, and are unstable. They are so difficult to crystallise that they were considered impossible to crystallise. Yonath was attempting to crystallise them and was considered a dreamer or even a fool for trying. Further, they are difficult to keep crystallised when irradiated with X-rays. Against all such odds, Ada was able to obtain the first X-ray crystallographic image of a ribosome. You can imagine her great tenacity since she achieved that after 25,000 or so trials!

That kind of perseverance is reminiscent of the story about Thomas Alva Edison. He had tried thousands of materials as possible material for filaments of his light bulb. A friend commented that there were so many failures. Edison said that they were not failures. He had conclusively proven that those thousands of materials were not suitable materials for making a filament.

Currently Yonath is the director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly, at the Weizmann Institute of Science. She has demonstrated how antibiotics function. This has paved the way for new products to be developed depending on the structure of antibiotics bound to the ribosome. She has focused her efforts, in recent times, on the issues of antibiotic resistance. She also hopesto uncover the beginnings of life by answering the question, “how did ribosomes first come into being and start creating proteins?”

Yonath has at least three patents to her name. Two are assigned to Yeda research and development – an arm of the Weizman* institute.

Weizman was a Russian born biochemist, considered the father of industrial fermentation. He was also the first president of Israel. After his death, the presidency was offered to Albert Einstein, who refused the offer.

X-ray crystallography is a powerful tool for studying the structures of materials. However, the expert opinion was that the structure of Ribosomes was too difficult to figure out. Unfazed by it, Ada Yonath, with great perseverance, successfully found its structure for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize. She was also an inventor and here is her story told by @ J L Anil Kumar, Senior Consultant, LexOrbis.