Stockholm: Three scientists shared the 2010 Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday for forging a toolkit to manipulate carbon atoms, paving the way for new drugs to fight cancer and for revolutionary plastics.
Richard Heck of the United States and Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki of Japan were hailed for producing “great art in a test tube.”
The trio separately made outstanding contributions in organic chemistry, a field whose basis is carbon, one of the essential atoms of life and also of innumerable industrial synthetics.
“It is important to emphasize the great significance their discoveries have for both academic and industrial research and in the production of fine chemicals -- including pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals and high-tech materials -- that benefit society,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
(From left) Pictures of Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki are shown on a television screen at the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm following the announcement that they won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on 6 October 2010. AFP
Through their work, organic chemistry has developed into “an art form, where scientists produce marvelous chemical creations in their test tubes,” it said.
Heck, 79, retired in 1989 from the University of Delaware in the United States; Negishi, 75, was also based in the United States, at Perdue University in Indiana; Suzuki, 80, was based at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.
The trio developed a process known as palladium-catalyzed cross coupling, a means of knitting carbon atoms together so that they form a stable “skeleton” for organic molecules.
It has allowed chemists to synthesize compounds to fight colon cancer, the herpes virus and HIV, as well as smarter plastics that are used in consumer applications, such as ultra-thin computer monitors.
The discoveries “have had a great impact on academic research, the development of new drugs and materials, and are used in many industrial chemical processes for the synthesis of pharmaceuticals and other biologically active compounds,” the academy said.
The Nobel has been awarded on four previous occasions for breakthroughs in organic chemistry -- in 1912, 1950, 1979 and 2005.
In the 1960s, Heck laid the groundwork for coupling between carbon atoms by using a catalyser, or chemical to promote the process.
This was finetuned in 1977 by Negishi, who used a field of compounds known as organohalides, and taken a step further by Suzuki, who found a practical way to carry out the process using so-called organoborons.
Each of the three have lent their names to important chemical reactions, with Suzuki’s reaction being best suited to large-scale applications, for instance in production of substances that protect agricultural crops from fungi.
The Nobel jury pointed out that “today the Heck reaction, Negishi reaction and Suzuki reaction are of considerable importance to chemists.”
Negishi said in an telephone interview with a Swedish television that he was “sound asleep” when he got the crucial phone from Stockholm at around 5:00 am at home in Indiana.
“I am extremely happy,” he said.
He said there had been “some people mumbling” that he could be awarded the Nobel, leading him to “vaguely” consider the possibility of becoming a Nobel laureate.
The American Chemical Society president Joseph Francisco said in a statement the Nobel committee’s selection of Heck, Negishi and Suzuki was “wonderful.”
“The winners are among the foremost scientists of our era,” he said.
“Their research has led to creation of new molecules and compounds that have improved the lives of millions of people.”
Last year, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath won the chemistry prize for work on the ribosome, a cellular process that makes proteins, the stuff of life.
Heck, Negishi and Suzuki will share 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.49 million, €1.09 million) and each receive a medal.