American, 2 Japanese Share Nobel In Chemistry

American Richard Heck and Japanese researchers Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki won the 2010 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for developing a chemical method that has allowed scientists to make medicines and better electronics.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.�

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

You know, we have some more Nobel Prize winners to talk about today, in chemistry. The prize will be shared by three chemists working independently -two in the United States and one in Japan.�

They developed ways of making complex materials that are based on carbon. Oh, good, more carbon today. Yesterday we heard about incredible inventions based on unbelievably thin sheets of carbon. And today we're going to talk about carbon used to make everything from cancer-fighting drugs to molecules that could lead to new computer screens.

We're going to talk about this with NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

Joe, Good morning.

JOE PALCA: Morning to you.

INSKEEP: OK. So who are the winners here?

PALCA: OK. The winners are: number one, Richard Heck, who is an American citizen currently living in the Philippines; Ei-Ichi Negishi, who is a Japanese citizen, who is a professor at Purdue University; and Akira Suzuki, who is a Japanese citizen living in - working in Hokkaido University in Japan.

INSKEEP: Wow, a diverse group of people. What did they do?

PALCA: Well, Steve, if you'll cast your mind back to yesterday, Dan Charles talked about this graphene compound which can do all sorts of remarkable things. And he said, well, it's easy, you know, it makes you feel like you could do something that would win a Nobel Prize.

INSKEEP: Put some Scotch tape on carbon. Yeah.

PALCA: Right. Not today, Steve.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Unless you happen to have a well-equipped organic chemistry lab in your house. This is heavy stuff. The prize was given for palladium-catalyzed cross-couplings in organic synthesis. As I'm sure everyone knows...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: No. Here's the best explanation of this that I can give you in a short period of time.

INSKEEP: OK. By the way, you lost me at palladium. I'm thinking about a theater somewhere...

PALCA: Palladium is a metal.

INSKEEP: OK.

PALCA: And first of all - so palladium is a catalyst in this particular case. What that means is, it doesn't actually go into the reaction. It doesn't come out at the end of it. But it speeds up the reaction. It makes the reaction do something that might not happen on its own. That's what catalysts are. And palladium happens to be an important catalyst.

INSKEEP: OK.

PALCA: What this reaction is for is joining carbon molecules together in interesting new ways, not in these flat sheets, but in complex three-dimensional compounds that can have remarkable properties.

INSKEEP: Meaning that this could be a drug or a computer screen? That's pretty wild.

PALCA: Well, yes. And you'll also remember yesterday, Dan got to talk about a hamster? I get to talk about a sponge.

INSKEEP: OK.

PALCA: So the sponge is something called Discodermia dissoluta. And it was discovered by scuba divers in the Caribbean in the late 1980s. It lives about 108 feet down. And the interesting thing about this little guy is that he lacks eyes, a mouth, a stomach and bones.

INSKEEP: OK.

PALCA: But he manages to get rid of predators by making complex organic molecules. Am I getting to you here? The connection is becoming clear? Making complex organic molecules, which are poisonous to the attackers of this sponge. So scientists got this Discodermia...

INSKEEP: Alright.

PALCA: ...and isolated a compound from it called discodermolide. And they found out it had anti-cancer properties. Well, that's great. But you can't collect enough sponges to get this stuff into any kind of useful...

INSKEEP: So you've got to make it?

PALCA: So you've got to make it. So that's what these reactions have done. They have allowed organic chemists to recreate this discodermolide...

INSKEEP: Yeah...

PALCA: ...in the lab, and now they're testing it as a cancer drug.

INSKEEP: We've just got a few seconds here. But, Joe, this is reminding me of the story that everybody learns about the discovery of penicillin. It was something that was found in nature and the challenge was to make lots and lots of it artificially, or just to make lots and lots of somehow.

PALCA: Well, that's what's happening. You know, nature has figured out a lot of really remarkable reactions. And the trick, as you say, is to put them into some kind of format where you can use them in a commercial process and make enough of it to use.

INSKEEP: And three chemists working independently have come up with this process and they win the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

PALCA: Right.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joe Palca, thanks very much.

PALCA: You betcha.

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Trio Wins Nobel For Special Chemical Reaction

Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki share this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry. The three are organic chemists, and each independently came up with new ways to make complex organic molecules — in this case, carbon-to-carbon bonds.

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The chemical processes are now used worldwide in commercial production of pharmaceuticals, including potential cancer drugs. The molecules are also used to make electronics, LEDs and extremely thin motors, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

What's so important about these complex organic molecules? Humans are carbon-based life forms, and carbon molecules are the keys to life itself. There are a huge number of intriguing, complex carbon molecules made by living organisms, and chemists are always looking for new ways to create these compounds in the laboratory rather than rely on a living creature to make them.

Take the case of discodermolide, a complex organic molecule made by the marine sponge Discodermia dissoluta. Divers didn't discover this sponge in the Bahamas until the late 1980s.The discodermolide made by the sponge serves as a poison, protecting it from predators. But scientists have found that many of these natural poisons can have therapeutic properties. In the case of discodermolide, it appears to have anti-cancer properties. The drug is in early testing as a potential new cancer drug. Other poisons have been found in nature that have antiviral or anti-inflammatory properties, and still others function as natural antibiotics.

Rather than ravage the sponge population to obtain discodermolide, chemists can now make it in the laboratory using the techniques developed by this year's laureates. These techniques can also be used to make new plastics and other coatings that can be used in the electronics industry.

"There have been calculations that no less than 25 percent of all chemical reactions in the pharmaceutical industry are actually based on these methods," said Nobel Prize committee member Claes Gustafsson.

The winners all worked independently and developed the chemical process honored this year — using palladium as a catalyst to form carbon-to-carbon bonds, specifically "palladium-catalyzed cross-couplings in organic synthesis" — over several years.

Using palladium metal in the chemical reactions makes those carbon bonds happen "very easily, very cleanly," said Joseph Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society and a colleague of Negishi's at Purdue University. It requires fewer steps than previous methods and avoids having to clean up unwanted byproducts, he said.

Heck, an emeritus professor at the University of Delaware, is the only American of this year’s chemistry prize winners. In 1968, he published a paper that showed how to link a ring of carbon atoms to a shorter fragment of carbon to make styrene, a major component of the plastic polystyrene, using the element palladium to facilitate the reaction.

Negishi is a Japanese citizen who is currently working at Purdue in Indiana. Suzuki is also a Japanese citizen. He's professor emeritus at Hokkaido University in Japan. Negishi and Suzuki also found ways to synthesize organic molecules using palladium as a catalyst in the 1970s.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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