This year's Nobel Prize for chemistry has been awarded to three men who pioneered better ways to make complex carbon-based molecules in the laboratory. They are Richard Heck of the United States, Akira Suzuki of Japan, and Ei-ichi Negishi, a Japanese citizen who spent most of his career in the United States.
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N: Those are all things made possible by the work that earned three organic chemists this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Working independently, the trio came up with ways to link carbon atoms together so that complex organic molecules can be made in the lab. NPR's Joe Palca has our report.
JOE PALCA: Sometimes scientists know when they've been nominated for the Nobel Prize. H Negishi of Purdue University knew. And today he got the call.
H NEGISHI: This is, of course, major surprise but not a complete surprise.
PALCA: But lots of people get nominated each year, and there are always many worthy candidates. At a press conference at Purdue University this morning, Negishi described a conversation he had had just last night.
NEGISHI: I was telling my wife maybe one in hundred. One in hundred, that means there are 99 chance...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NEGISHI: ...for this not coming.
PALCA: Negishi shares the prize with Richard Heck, who's now retired from the University of Delaware; and Akira Suzuki an emeritus professor at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.
The award was for their work on palladium catalyzed cross-couplings in organic synthesis. It's not easy work to describe. At no point during the 45-minute press conference did any one ask a question directly related to Negishi's Nobel work.
JOSEPH FRANCISCO: One of the things that chemistry is fundamentally about is how to make new molecules and how to make new materials.
PALCA: Joseph Francisco is a colleague of Negishi's at Purdue and the president of the American Chemical society. Basically, these three chemists used the metal palladium as a catalyst. Catalysts are a little like matchmakers: They bring atoms together that probably wouldn't get together on their own.
FRANCISCO: That actually makes it very easy to make new bonds and connect atoms and connect various groups to make new compounds.
PALCA: These new compounds have had a variety of applications, from medicine to electronics.
Winning the Nobel prize doesn't just validate a scientist's work. It turns them into something special.
NEGISHI: I can begin sensing its enormous impact. And at the same time, I have begun feeling my responsibility as well, which will be enormously increased.
PALCA: The Nobel Prize means H Negishi is now someone people will turn to for all sorts of answers, not just about how to make complex organic molecules.
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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.
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.