The Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded for the work of mirror-image molecules “asymmetric organocatalysis”


STOCKHOLM – Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for finding an ingenious and greener way to build molecules – an approach now used to make a variety of compounds, including drugs and pesticides.

The work of Benjamin List and David WC MacMillan has enabled scientists to produce these molecules cheaply, efficiently, safely and with much less hazardous waste.

“This is already of great benefit to humanity,” said Nobel panel member Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede.

It was the second day in a row that a Nobel Prize has been awarded for work with environmental implications. The Physics Prize honored developments that have broadened our understanding of climate change, just weeks before the start of global climate negotiations in Scotland.

The chemistry prize was for the manufacture of molecules. This requires linking the atoms together in specific arrangements, a task that is often difficult and slow. Until the turn of the millennium, chemists had only two methods – or catalysts – to speed up the process, using either complicated enzymes or metal catalysts.

That all changed when List of the Max Planck Institute in Germany and MacMillan of Princeton University in New Jersey independently reported that small organic molecules can be used to do the job. The new tools have been important in developing drugs and minimizing drug manufacturing issues, including issues that can cause harmful side effects.

Johan Åqvist, president of the Nobel panel, described the method as “as simple as it is ingenious”.

“The point is, a lot of people have wondered why we hadn’t thought of this sooner,” he added.

MacMillan said winning the award left him “stunned, shocked, happy, very proud.”

“I grew up in Scotland, a working class child. My father is a metallurgist. My mother was a home help. .

In fact, he told a press conference in Princeton, he was planning to follow his older brother in physics, but physics classes at college were at 8 a.m. in a cold classroom. and elusive in rainy Scotland, while chemistry lessons lasted two hours. later in warmer, drier spaces. As he told this story, he said he could hear his wife begging him not to share it.

He said the inspiration for his Nobel Prize winning work came from thinking about the dirty process of making chemicals – a process that requires precautions he compared to those taken in nuclear power plants.

If he could devise a way to make drugs faster in completely different ways that don’t require vats of metal catalysts, the process would be safer for workers and the planet, he explained.

List said he didn’t initially know MacMillan was working on the same topic and thought his own hunch might just be a “stupid idea” – until it worked. At this eureka moment, “I felt that this could be something big,” said the 53-year-old.

HN Cheng, president of the American Chemical Society, said the winners had developed “new magic wands”.

Prior to their work, “frequently used standard catalysts were metals, which frequently have environmental drawbacks,” Cheng said. “They accumulate, they infiltrate, they can be dangerous.”

The catalysts developed by MacMillan and List “are organic, so they will degrade faster, and they are also cheaper,” he said.

The Nobel panel noted that their contributions facilitated the production of key drugs, including an antiviral and an anxiolytic.

“One way to look at their work is like molecular carpentry,” said John Lorsch, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the US National Institutes of Health.

“They found ways not only to speed up chemical assembly,” he said, “but to make sure it only happens in the right or left direction.”

The ability to control the orientation in which new atoms are added to molecules is important. Failure to do so can lead to side effects in drugs, the Nobel panel explained, citing the catastrophic example of thalidomide, which caused severe birth defects in children.

Since the discovery of scientists, the tool has been further refined, making it much more effective.

Peter Somfai, another committee member, stressed the importance of discovery to the global economy.

“It has been estimated that catalysis is responsible for around 35% of global GDP, which is a pretty impressive figure,” he said. “If we have a more environmentally friendly alternative, we expect it to make a difference.”

The NIH supported List’s research with a grant in 2002. MacMillan’s work has received NIH funding since 2000, totaling approximately $ 14.5 million to date.

“It’s a great example of supporting basic science that you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go,” but one that can have a major impact, said Francis Collins, director of the NIH.

The Nobel comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor, or more than $ 1.14 million. The money comes from a bequest left by the creator of the prize, the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.

Over the next few days, Nobel Prizes will be awarded in the fields of literature, peace and economics.


Jordans reported from Berlin and Larson from Washington. Associated Press reporters Mike Corder in Amsterdam and Ted Shaffrey in Princeton, New Jersey, contributed.


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