Trio wins Nobel for developing key chemistry tool
A method for building complex molecules has paid off by helping to fight cancer, protect crops and make electronic devices — and earned its developers a Nobel Prize in chemistry.
The Associated Press
THE PRESTIGIOUS awards were created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, and first given out in 1901. The prizes, worth about $1.5 million each, always are handed out Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.
Medicine: Awarded Monday to British biologist Robert G. Edwards, for his work on in-vitro fertilization
Physics: Awarded Tuesday to two Russian-born scientists for their discovery of graphene, whose unexpected properties may revolutionize electronics, lightweight materials and a host of other applications.
Chemistry: Awarded Wednesday to American Richard Heck and two Japanese scientists, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki, for finding new ways to bond carbon atoms.
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — A method for building complex molecules has paid off by helping to fight cancer, protect crops and make electronic devices — and earned its developers a Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Three men — two Japanese scientists and a U.S. researcher — designed the technique to bind together carbon atoms, a key step in assembling the skeletons of organic compounds used in medicine, agriculture and electronics.
Their work in the 1960s and 1970s provided "one of the most sophisticated tools available to chemists today (and) vastly improved the possibilities for chemists to create sophisticated chemicals," the Nobel committee said.
The winners are Richard Heck, 79, a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, now living in the Philippines; Ei-ichi Negishi, 75, a chemistry professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.; and Akira Suzuki, 80, a retired professor from Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.
The three will share the prize for their bonding technique, palladium-catalyzed cross coupling, which allows chemists to join carbon atoms at lower temperatures and with less waste than earlier processes.
Heck published his initial work in 1968 and an improved method in 1972. In 1977, Negishi developed a variant of the palladium approach and two years later Suzuki developed another.
Altogether, their methods are widely used in industry and research.
"I don't think anybody thinks about making a complicated organic compound without considering one of these three reactions," said Keith Woerpel, a chemistry professor at New York University.
By one estimate, they're the basis for at least 25 percent of all chemical reactions in the pharmaceutical industry, said prize-committee member Claes Gustafsson.
That includes the production of the common painkiller naproxen, widely sold as Aleve and other brands, new antibiotics, an asthma drug and a synthetic version of a substance from a marine sponge that might fight cancer. Heck's work was adapted to make the cancer drug Taxol, steroids and morphine, the Nobel committee said.
In agriculture, the palladium approach is used to make chemicals that protect crops from fungi and other pests. And the electronics industry uses it for coating electronic circuits and as a tool for developing future computer screens that are thinner, said prize-committee member Jan-Erling Backvall.
Though the prize was given for breakthroughs made 30 to 40 years ago, that's not uncommon for Nobel Prizes, especially if the real-world uses increase over time.
"This is one of those cases," said Gustafsson, of the chemistry prize committee.
Heck was the only American among the Nobel science winners this year. In recent years, there have been at least two U.S. scientists among the medicine, physics and chemistry laureates; there were none in 1991.
Heck, who has retired from active research, said the award would probably not spur any major change in his settled life in the Philippines, where he lives with his Filipino wife and tends to an orchid garden and pet birds.
"It's a nice thing to have, but I don't think this is going to change my life. I'm too old," Heck said an interview in his suburban Manila home.
Negishi told reporters in Stockholm by telephone from Indiana that he started dreaming about winning the prize half a century ago.
"The Nobel Prize became a realistic dream of mine when I was in my 20s," he said, adding he would use his third of the $1.5 million award to continue doing research.
"I may have accomplished maybe half of my goals, and I definitely would like to work for at least a couple more years," Negishi said.
Suzuki, in a televised news conference from Hokkaido University, said he hoped the prize would inspire Japanese youngsters to explore chemistry.
"To my disappointment, not many young people seem to be interested in science, especially chemistry," he said.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.
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