This year’s Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry has gone to not one, but three scientists, for their work in developing techniques to synthesize complex carbon molecules including medicines.
The winners are Richard F. Heck, 79, a retired University of Delaware professor now living in the Philippines; Ei-ichi Negishi, 75, a chemistry professor at Purdue University; and Akira Suzuki, 80, a professor at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. The three will split the $1.4 million prize.
Over the years, all three of these men have each independently made advances in using the metal palladium as a catalyst to link together carbon molecules into larger, more complicated structures. While drugs, plastics and many other industrial chemicals consist of large carbon-based molecules, getting one carbon atom is bind to another is not an easy task. In 1968, Dr. Heck reported new chemical reactions that used palladium as the key catalyst for shepherding carbons together. In 1977, Dr. Negishi used zinc compounds and eased the mingling of carbon atoms on palladium, and two years later, Dr. Suzuki found that boron compounds worked even better. This all came after a century ago, when a French chemist named Victor Grignard found that coupling a magnesium atom to a carbon atom pushed additional electrons to the carbon atom, making it easier to bond with another carbon atom.
“They say that even 25 percent of all medicines that are synthesized today are made by one of these reactions, so it’s a huge impact on the pharmaceutical industry,” Lars Thelander, chairman of the chemistry prize committee. “Palladium has this magic property that it can bind two different carbons make them come very close together and then they react under very mild conditions.”
While the three are extremely grateful for having achieved this award, Dr. Negishi said an early-morning phone call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobels, did not catch him completely by surprise. “There have been some people who have been mumbling about that,” he said during a Webcast news conference following the announcement, “and I began thinking of this and that.”
Previous winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry include Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz, Ada E. Yonath in 2009. Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, Roger Y. Tsien in 2008, and Gerhard Ertl in 2007. It has been awarded 102 times to 160 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2010. Frederick Sanger is the only Nobel Laureate who has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry twice, in 1958 and 1980.