American Richard Heck and Japanese researchers Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki won the 2010 Nobel Prize in chemistry on 6.10.2010 for developing a chemical method that has allowed scientists to test cancer drugs and make thinner computer screens.
Richard Heck of the University of Delaware, Ei-ichi Negishi of Purdue University, and Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido University in Japan came up with efficient ways to link carbon atoms together. This process is important in synthesising, among other things, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals and coatings for electronic components. The 10 million Swedish Kronor (£1m) prize will be shared equally between the three Nobel laureates.
In nature, everything from penicillin to hormones, the scent of a flower and the colour of a person’s eyes is the result of carbon-based molecules. Understanding how to synthesise chains of carbon atoms has given scientists skeletons upon which to build molecules with specific functions or properties, leading to the discovery of new medicines and materials such as plastics.
Building the carbon skeletons, however, is not easy. Carbon atoms are stable and do not react easily with each other. Today’s Nobel winners found ways of using palladium to catalyse reactions between carbon atoms without producing lots of unwanted by-products.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the award honors their development of palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic systems. The academy called that one of the most sophisticated tools available to chemists today, and one that is used by researchers worldwide and in commercial production of pharmaceuticals and molecules used to make electronics.
The method has been used to artificially produce discodermolide, a cancer-killing substance first found in marine sponges, the academy said in its citation. It added that no cancer drug based on the substance has been developed yet. “Only the future will tell if discodermolide turns out to be a life-saving drug,” it said.
David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “The metal-based ‘coupling’ reactions pioneered by this year’s three chemistry Nobel laureates have led to countless breakthroughs. The Heck, Negishi and Suzuki reactions make possible the vital fluorescent marking that underpins DNA sequencing, and are essential tools for synthetic chemists creating complex new drugs and polymers.”
Richard Heck, 79, is a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware. Ei-ichi Negishi, 75, is a chemistry professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and 80-year-old Akira Suzuki is a professor at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.
The awards were established by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel — the inventor of dynamite — and are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of his death in 1896.
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