Year : 2013 | Volume
: 2 | Issue : 2 | Page : 110--112
Vitamins at the Nobels
Bharti Kalra1, Sanjay Kalra2,
1 Department of Obstetrics, Bharti Hospital and Research Center, Karnal, Haryana, India
2 Department of Endocrinology, Bharti Hospital and Research Center, Karnal, Haryana, India
Department of Obstetrics, Bharti Hospital and Research Center, Karnal, Haryana
The Nobel Prize is the pinnacle of success in medical research. An analysis of the Nobel Prize winning discoveries gives an idea of the evolution of modern medical science. This brief communication focuses on the vitamins that made it to the Nobel high table, i.e., the vitamin-related discoveries that won the Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and in Chemistry. The authors trace the history of vitamins at the Nobel Prize, from 1903, when Niels Finsen won the prize for his work on heliotherapy, till date. The discoveries of various researchers are explained, as is their importance.
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Kalra B, Kalra S. Vitamins at the Nobels.J Med Nutr Nutraceut 2013;2:110-112
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Kalra B, Kalra S. Vitamins at the Nobels. J Med Nutr Nutraceut [serial online] 2013 [cited 2024 Feb 26 ];2:110-112
Available from: http://www.jmnn.org/text.asp?2013/2/2/110/114727
Vitamins are an essential part of nutrition today-so essential in fact that the modern student may excused for thinking that we always knew vitamins existed. Nothing could be further from truth. A review of the early Nobel Prize winning discoveries related to vitamins gives a glimpse into the novelty vitamins once were.
The Initial Years
The story of vitaminology is just 100 years old. It was in 1911 that Casimir Funk coined the term "Vitamine."  Through the initial years, vitamin research was marked by excitement and optimism; it took time before the Nobel Prize committee honored this field with the coveted prize. Incidentally, the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine had been awarded in 1903 to Niels Finsen for a vitamin-related discovery, without actually realizing this. Niels Finsen used concentrated light therapy to treat lupus vulgaris,  but did not know the effect was due to vitamin D (no vitamin had been discovered at that time).
The First Prize in Physiology or Medicine
The story behind the first Nobel Prize awarded in physiology or medicine to a vitamin discovery is a beautiful one. It crosses national boundaries, from the Netherlands to Indonesia, and combines poultry medicine with preventive health. Christian Eijkman had studied under Robert Koch, another Nobel Prize laureate, who had discovered the etiology of tuberculosis. Eijkman traveled to Batavia (present Indonesia) to find the bacterium that causes beriberi. He was so eager to find a cure for this debilitating, and often fatal, disease that he ignored his own health (chronic malaria) and personal tragedies (he had just lost his wife).
After 9 years of trials on chickens, Eijkman discovered that feeding with white rice caused beriberi, while consuming brown rice (unpolished) rice corrected the symptoms. He felt that an anti-beriberi factor was present in the skin that was removed from white rice, and that this factor neutralized some unknown poisonous substance present in rice starch.
Then, researchers named and isolated this vitamin from rice bran (Casimir Funk, 1911), crystallized the active agent (B. C. P. Jansen and W. F. Donath, 1926), determined its structure (R. R. Williams, 1934), and synthesized it (R. R. Williams, 1936).
Christian Eijkman received the 1929 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his seminal work. Along with him, the prize was awarded to Sir Frederick Gowlind Hopkins. Sir Hopkins was the leader of the dynamic biochemistry school in Britain and received the award for the discovery of growth stimulating vitamins. He discovered glutathione, isolated tryptophan, and worked on uric acid. 
Later Prizes in Physiology or Medicine
In 1934, George Whipple, George Minot, and William Murphy (USA) won the Nobel Prize for discovering that liver therapy could cure anemia. At that time, the active ingredient (vitamin B12) was unknown. This vitamin was isolated in 1948 by M. S. Shorb and K. A. Folkers, while its chemical structure was discovered by D. C. Hodgkin in 1956. D. C. Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964.
Albert Szent Gyorgyi reached the Nobel high table in 1937, being credited for work related to vitamin C. He detected an antioxidant, which he later identified as hexuronic acid, in the adrenal cortex. This was later proven to be vitamin C. Norman Haworth received the chemistry Nobel Prize in the same year (1937), having identified the structure and synthesizing vitamin C.
Another vitamin won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1943, when Henrick Dam and Edward Doisy received credit for discovering vitamin K. The letter K was used as it was the first letter not to have been used by other researchers in this field so far. Also, it stood for the Danish word "Koagulation."
Dam discovered that vitamin K, found in green leaves and liver, prevented bleeding in chickens. He shared the prize with Doisy, who synthesized the vitamin.
The next medicine prize on work on vitamins was awarded to George Wald in 1967, who discovered vitamin A in the retina and its effect on night blindness. He shared it with two other laureates, Ragnar Grant and H. K. Hartline, for their discoveries concerning the primary physiology and chemical visual processes in the eye. 
The First Prize in Chemistry
The first Nobel Prize in chemistry to be awarded in the field of vitamin research was in 1928. This happened a year before the first prize in physiology or medicine was given to a vitamin discovery.
Adolf Windaus walked away with top honors for his work on sterol and vitamin chemistry. He worked on cholesterol, bile acids, histidine and histamines, and vitamin D. His student, Adolf Butenandt, later won the 1939 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on sex hormones. 
Later Prizes in Chemistry
This was followed in 1937 by prizes awarded to Paul Karrer for investigations on multiple vitamins, including carotenoids, flavins, vitamin A, and vitamin B2, as well as to Walter Norman Haworth for work on vitamin C.
1937 was a landmark year as both chemistry and physiology/medicine prizes were awarded to scientist working on vitamins.
The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded again the next year to vitamin-based research. The laureate was Richard Kuhn, who worked on carotenoids and vitamins. He discovered eight new carotenoids, and worked on vitamins B2 and B6.
In 1945, Artturi Ilmari Virtanen achieved Nobel laureate status for research on agricultural and nutrition chemistry. This included work on plant vitamins and vitamin content in milk. Though not belonging to "classic" vitamin research, his and Livestock's contribution to human health have been significant.
It took some time before a vitamin researcher returned to the Nobel Prize ceremony at Stockholm. Lord Alexander R. Todd received the chemistry prize for his work on nucleotides and nucleotide coenzymes in 1957. However, he had done extensive work on vitamins. He discovered the structure of vitamin B12, and worked on vitamin B1 and vitamin E.
Later prizes were awarded to vitamin researchers, but for unrelated achievements. Dorothy Crawford Hodgkin, the third women researcher to have bagged the Nobel Prize in chemistry, won it in 1964 for working on X-ray crystallography and determining the structure of various biochemicals. These include vitamin B12.
Roberts Burns Woodward received the prize in 1965 for organic synthesis. His "babies," which he synthesized, included cholesterol and cortisone. He later worked on the synthesis of vitamin B12. 
Vitamins are known for power, strength, and vitality. This holds true at Nobel Prizes, too, where vitamin biology dominated the scene for nearly 40 years, from 1928 to 1964.
No vitamin-related discovery has achieved Nobel Prize status in the last half century, Have we discovered all the vitamins that exist? Or is there a potential Nobel Prize winning vitamin waiting to be found? Only the future will tell.
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