5 Revolutionary Nobel Prizes in Medicine

Francis Crick and James Watson recreate their demonstration of the double helix model for DNA in 1990. (Image credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library)

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded today (Oct. 7) to a team of scientists who discovered how the body's cells transport molecules to the right locations. The advance joins a long line of biological breakthroughs, from the discovery of DNA's structure to the development of in vitro fertilization.

This year's Nobel prize honors American scientists James Rothman of Yale University and Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley, as well as German-born scientist Thomas Südhof of Stanford University, for their discoveries of the molecular principles that govern how molecules, such as the hormone insulin, arrive at the right place at the right time.

Since the prize's founding in 1901, the Nobel committee has awarded 104 medicine prizes to 204 people. Here are a few of the most memorable. [The 7 Biggest Mysteries of the Human Body]

1. Diphtheria and tetanus treatment

The first Nobel prize for medicine or physiology was awarded in 1901 to German researcher Emil von Behring, for his work on serum therapy, a method of treating disease by the injecting the blood serum of immune animals.

In particular, the award committee honored von Behring's use of serum therapy to treat the respiratory illness diphtheria and the nervous system infection tetanus. "He has opened a new road in the domain of medical science and thereby placed in the hands of the physician a victorious weapon against illness and deaths," the committee said at the time.

2. The double helix

James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the prize in 1962 for their discovery of the structure and significance of deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA.  

Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray crystallography work played a key role in solving DNA's structure, died in 1958 and was not awarded the prize (Nobel rules prohibit awarding the prize posthumously).

Other researchers who did not share the prize but who made important contributions to elucidating DNA's properties include Alex Stokes, Herbert Wilson, Erwin Chargaff and Oswald Avery.

3. Penicillin

Few advances have revolutionized the field of medicine as much as Alexander Fleming's discovery of the first natural antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928. The medicine Nobel was awarded to Scottish biologist Fleming, along with British biochemist Ernst Boris Chain and Australian pathologist Sir Howard Walter Florey in 1945 for the antibiotic's discovery and "its curative effect on various infectious diseases."

Derived from the Penicillium fungi, penicillin treats a host of bacterial infections, and saved the lives of countless wounded soldiers during World War II.

4. Jumping genes

American cell geneticist Barbara McClintock received an unshared prize in 1983 for her discovery of genetic transposons, DNA sequences that can change their position in the genome. She was one of only 10 women who have won the prize.

Others include Gerty Cori, who won the 1947 prize for her contributions to the discovery of how the body breaks down and re-creates the energy-storing sugar glycogen, and Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider in 2009, for their work in discovering how repetitive DNA sequences called telomeres and the enzyme telomerase protect chromosomes from deterioration.

5. In vitro fertilization

The 2010 prize went to English physiologist Robert Edwards for developing in vitro fertilization (IVF), the process of fertilizing a human egg outside of the body.

The technique involves monitoring a woman's reproductive cycle, removing eggs from her ovaries, fertilizing them with sperm in a lab dish, and implanting the fertilized egg into the woman's uterus. Louise Brown, born in 1978 in Britain, was the first "test tube baby" conceived using IVF.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.