Technology & Science

Trio win Nobel Prize in Chemistry

American Richard Heck and Japanese researchers Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki have won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a chemical method that has allowed scientists to create new medicines and better electronics.

An American and two Japanese scientists won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developing chemical methods widely used to make potential cancer drugs and other medicines, as well as slimmed-down computer screens.

American Richard Heck and Japanese researchers Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic systems. ((Scanpix Sweden/Janerik Henriksson/Associated Press))

Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki were honoured for their development four decades ago of one of the most sophisticated tools available to chemists today, called palladium-catalyzed cross couplings.

It lets chemists join carbon atoms together, a key step in the process of building complex molecules. Their methods are now used worldwide in commercial production of pharmaceuticals and molecules used to make electronics, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

Heck, 79, is a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware. Negishi, 75, is a chemistry professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and 80-year-old Suzuki is a professor at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.

Negishi told reporters in Stockholm by telephone from Indiana that he was excited to be awakened by a call early Wednesday from the Nobel committee, saying 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 10-million kronor ($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 of more years," Negishi said.

Heck said from his home in the Philippines that the importance of his work wasn't clear initially.

"It sort of grew as we worked on it," he said. "As I worked on it longer it appeared it was pretty important and it has developed well since then."

Officials at Hokkaido University were delighted by the news, said university spokesman Hidetoshi Nakatsuka.

Akira Suzuki, seen in this October 2010 file photo, is one of three winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. ((Yomiuri Shimbun/Takahiro Yamamoto/Associated Press))

"Professor Suzuki has been mentioned as a candidate in the past few years and we've been waiting for this to happen for all these years," Nakatsuka said. "We were standing by and we are extremely delighted."

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he spoke to Suzuki on the phone and congratulated him.

"He told me that Japan's science and technology is at the world's top level and encouraged me to make good use of the resources," Kan said.

The methods have been used to artificially produce cancer-killing substances first found in marine sponges, the academy said in its citation. While clinical testing has started, it's not yet clear whether they will turn out to be useful drugs.

It's also being used to create new antibiotics that work on resistant bacteria and a number of commercially available drugs, including the anti-inflammatory Naproxen, prize committee member Claes Gustafsson said.

"There have been calculations that no less than 25 per cent of all chemical reactions in the pharmaceutical industry are actually based on these methods," Gustafsson said.

Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling has also been used by the electronics industry to make light-emitting diodes used in the production of extremely thin monitors, the academy said.

The approach developed by the winners is widely used in the pharmaceutical industry, in research labs and in commercial production of substances like plastics, said Joseph Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society and a colleague of Negishi's in Purdue's chemistry department.

"It's truly quite fundamental work," he said.

By using the metal palladium as a catalyst to make carbon atoms bond to each other, the approach makes those bonds happen "very easily, very cleanly," he said. It requires fewer steps than previous methods and avoids having to clean up unwanted byproducts, he said.

Heck started experimenting with using palladium as a catalyst while working for an American chemical company in Delaware in the 1960s. In 1977, Negishi developed a variant of the method and two years later Suzuki developed a third.

Link to graphene research

The academy said the chemistry award had a link to the research honoured Tuesday by the Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to Russian-born Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for experiments with graphene, the thinnest and strongest known material.

"In spring 2010, scientists announced that they had attached palladium atoms to graphene, and the resulting solid material was used to carry out the Suzuki reaction in water," the citation said.

The 2010 Nobel Prize announcements began Monday with the medicine award going to 85-year-old British professor Robert Edwards for fertility research that led to the first test tube baby.

The literature prize will be announced on Thursday, followed by the peace prize on Friday and economics on Monday, Oct. 11.

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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