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.