Paleogenetic Pioneer Wins 2022 Nobel Prize in Medicine


Svante Paabo has won the 2022 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his ground-breaking work in paleogenetics. Paabo’s research – which includes sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal for the first time – has wide-ranging implications for the study of human evolution, as well as in the development of modern medicine.


Paabo, founder of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and an adjunct professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, will pocket the SEK 10 million (USD 901,500) cash prize at a ceremony in his native Sweden on December 10th 2022, the anniversary of Nobel Prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896, The Japan Times reports.

The Nobel committee said that Paabo had achieved “something seemingly impossible” by sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, a now extinct relative of modern-day humans. Paabo is also credited with the discovery of a previously unknown hominin, Denisova, from which genes were transferred to Homosapiens following the migration out of Africa around 70,000 years ago. The Committee added that this ancient flow of genes to present-day humans “has physiological relevance today, for example affecting how our immune system reacts to infections.”

As The Guardian’s Linda Geddes notes, “a Denisovan version of the gene EPAS1 has been found to help people survive at high altitudes and is common among modern-day Tibetans. Neanderthal genes have also been identified that affect our immune responses to different types of infections, including the risk of severe COVID-19.”


Not without controversy

Experts in the field have pushed back against suggestions that Paabo’s work is too far removed from the reality of modern medicine for him to be a deserving recipient of this year’s physiology/medicine gong.

While the developers of the mRNA technology behind the world’s most successful COVID-19 vaccines were bookmakers’ favourites, David Pendlebury, research head at analytics company Clarivate’s ISI institute, stated that “This revolutionary research in genetics and evolution falls within the range of topics that could and should be recognized by the physiology or medicine Nobel Prize.”

As reported by the AFP’s Julien Dury, Pendlebury added, “It is, however, not an award for a discovery relevant to clinical medicine, which many anticipated this year after a Nobel Prize focusing on physiology last year.”

Others weighed in on the potential impact of Paabo’s research. Genetic anthropologist Evelyne Heyer of France’s National Museum of Natural History told Dury that, “We can understand, for example, what genes have made it possible to adapt in the past, and therefore which are important for our current health,” citing in particular the case of diabetes.”

Paleogeneticist Eva-Maria Geigl from French research agency CNRS said it was “completely justified” to give Paabo the prize. “We must not forget that medicine is the exercise of keeping human beings in good health, so we must first understand biology,” she said.

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