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US/Japanese Scientists Win Nobel for Chemical Tool

Wednesday, 06 Oct 2010 07:04 AM

 

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STOCKHOLM,  - A U.S. and two Japanese scientists won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday for revolutionary chemical research with uses that range from fighting cancer to producing thin computer screens.

Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki shared the prize for the development of "palladium-catalysed cross-coupling", the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

"Palladium-catalysed cross-coupling is used in research worldwide, as well as in the commercial production of, for example, pharmaceuticals and molecules used in the electronics industry," the committee said.

The tool allows scientists to build complex chemicals such as the carbon-based ones that are the basis of life.

Such chemicals include one that is naturally found in small quantities in a sea sponge, which scientists aime to use to fight cancer cells. 

Thanks to the scientists' chemical tool, researchers can now artificially produce this substance, called discodermolide.

Negishi, who is at Purdue University in the United States, said he first started dreaming about winning the prize some 50 years ago, when he came to the United States.

He said he was sound asleep when the academy telephoned him at 5 a.m. local time but was extremely happy to be woken.

"This means a lot. I would be telling a lie if I wasn't thinking about this. I told someone that I began thinking -- dreaming -- about this prize half a century ago."

 

WORKING IN PARALLEL

Heck is with the University of Delaware in the United States, while Suzuki is at Hokkaido University in Japan.

Joseph Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society and himself a professor at Purdue, said the three worked in parallel for years. "They have just played off of each other," Francisco said in a telephone interview.

"Professors Negishi and Suzuki and Professor Heck have developed new catalysts for doing specific types of reactions that connect new atoms and connect new functional groups to allow a broader array of new compounds to be made."

He added: "It revolutionises the kinds of techniques that chemists have available to make new medicines and new plastics and new materials."

The prize does not come as a surprise, Francisco said, because the work is so fundamental and significant.

"It's very basic research that makes a lot of other innovations and new materials possible," he said. "But with Nobel prizes, you don't know where they are going to go."

The committee said the tool overcame an obstacle scientists had faced in efforts to make sophisticated chemicals.

"In order to create these complex chemicals, chemists need to be able to join carbon atoms together. However, carbon is stable and carbon atoms do not easily react with one another," the committee said.

It said this meant scientists had to make carbon atoms more active, but this also produced more byproducts when more complex molecules were being created.

"Palladium-catalysed cross coupling solved that problem and provided chemists with a more precise and efficient tool to work with," the committee added.

The prize of 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.5 million) was the third of this year's Nobel prizes, following awards for medicine on Monday and for physics on Tuesday.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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