The head of one of Canada's busiest research laboratories has made this year's list of scientists deemed likely to win a Nobel Prize.
Stephen Scherer, director of the Centre for Applied Genomics at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, was named a potential winner of the Physiology or Medicine prize for his role in the discovery of copy number variation, a form of genetic difference between individuals that has been implicated in a wide range of diseases.
Dr. Scherer is one of 27 scientists and economists who appear on the 2014 edition of the list, issued by Thomson Reuters, on Thursday.
The list also includes Peter Howitt, a Canadian-born professor emeritus at Brown University in Providence, R.I., as a candidate for a Nobel Prize in Economics. Dr. Howitt is known for his theoretical work on innovation and economic growth.
The media company's picks have become an annual ritual leading up to the bestowing of the Nobel Prizes in October. Although the list is unconnected to the secretive process by which Nobelists are actually chosen, about one in four researchers who have made the Thomson Reuters list in previous years has gone on to win a Nobel – though often not in the same year.
The list is largely based on citations – the number of times a piece of research is referred to in the work of other scientists, but also takes into account other factors seen as Nobel-worthy.
In selecting Dr. Scherer, the company noted that the 2004 paper he co-authored on copy number variation is among the most highly cited publications in its field with important applications in medical research. As well, the discovery overturned the scientific dogma of the time.
"That is a hallmark of many Nobel Prizes," said David Pendlebury, who led the analysis behind the Thomson Reuters list.
Originally, scientists thought that individuals nearly always inherit two copies of every gene – one from each parent. Dr. Scherer was a key player behind the revelation that much more variation is common.
His work helped to demonstrate that errors in the way cells replicate DNA can lead to an individual acquiring more or fewer than two copies of gene. In some cases, a gene can be deleted altogether. Depending on a gene's specific role in the body, such differences can lead to clinical disorders, such as autism, which is at the focus of research in Dr. Scherer's Toronto lab.
"I am hugely honoured to be on that list with so many giants of science," Dr. Scherer said, adding, "I think what is most important about this happening is that it is an independent recognition of the importance of our work."
Dr. Scherer joins a short list of other Canadians to make the Thomson Reuters list, including Ernest McCulloch and James Till, who are widely credited for their discovery of stem cells while working at the Ontario Cancer Institute in the 1960s. However, Drs. McCulloch and Till are among those overlooked by the Nobel committee.
It's unclear what Dr. Scherer's chances are of scoring science's most coveted honour.
John Dirks, who oversees the Gairdner Awards, the country's most prestigious medical prize, noted that as an active researcher still in the midst of a productive career, Dr. Scherer is on the younger side of those who typically win the Nobel. But, he added, "Steve is doing great work." In general, Canada needs to "get better at recognizing" its research stars, Dr. Dirks said – and needs to invest more money in developing them.
The announcements of this year's Nobel Prize winners are set to begin in Sweden on Oct. 7.