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Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded for ‘simple’ yet ‘ingenious’ discovery

By Rob Picheta and Katie Hunt, CNN

The Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan, two scientists honored for creating “an ingenious tool for building molecules” that has helped develop new drugs and make chemistry greener.

The pair were announced as the prize winners in Stockholm, Sweden, on Wednesday, for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis. Their discoveries “initiated a totally new way of thinking for how to put together chemical molecules,” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the chemistry Nobel committee.

“This new toolbox is used widely today, for example in drug discovery, and in fine chemicals production and is already benefiting humankind greatly,” Wittung-Stafshede added.

List, a German scientist who is professor at and director of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, and Scotland-born chemist MacMillan, now a US-based professor at Princeton University, worked independently of each other but share the prize, the third Nobel award to be handed out this week.

In 2000, the two researchers uncovered a third kind of catalyst — a substance which brings about a chemical reaction — called asymmetric organocatalysis. Scientists had previously believed that there were just two types of catalysts: metals and enzymes. Enzymes contain hundreds of amino acids or proteins, but the winners were able to demonstrate that a single organic molecule can act as a catalyst.

“This concept for catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” said Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

The new catalysts have been used in a number of ways in the past two decades, including for creating new pharmaceuticals and building molecules that capture light in solar cells. The committee credited them with “bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.”

The work of List and MacMillan has helped develop a drug to treat high blood pressure and streamline the production of drugs like paroxetine (Seroxat), which treats depression, and oseltamivir — better known as Tamiflu — which is used to treat respiratory infections.

“I hope I live up to this recognition and continue discovering amazing things,” List told reporters after being announced as a winner.

List said he was having a coffee with his wife when he got the call from the Nobel Committee. “Sweden appears on my phone, and I look at her, she looks at me and I run out of the coffee shop to the street and, you know, that was amazing. It was very special. I will never forget,” he said.

‘Fantastically important’

The organocatalysis process developed by the winners is called “asymmetric” because they were able to pinpoint which molecule to use as a catalyst. During chemical construction, a situation often arises where two molecules can form, which — just like our hands — are each other’s mirror image, the Nobel Committee explained. Chemists often just want one of these mirror images, particularly when producing pharmaceuticals, but it has been difficult to find efficient methods for doing this.

“This is a fantastically important piece of chemistry and these two are undoubtedly leaders in that field,” Phillip Broadwith, business editor of Chemistry World magazine, told CNN after the announcement was made.

“This is very fundamental chemistry,” Broadwith added. “In its essence, it’s about making molecules and it’s about making them more efficiently, using less energy and without metal catalysts, which are problematic if they end up in pharmaceuticals.”

H.N. Cheng, the president of the American Chemical Society, said the award was a “fitting recognition” for “a major accomplishment.”

“As chemists we love to do reactions and reactions are a key part of our work, and the reactions frequently are unfortunately not as desired — they can be slow, they can be nonspecific they may not go the way we wanted,” he told CNN. “Catalysis is one way whereby we can actually help the reaction and make reactions go better or generate new reactions that could not be done before.”

Cheng likened it to making food. “If you’re cooking a dish, you’re actually doing a chemical reaction. So say it takes 10 minutes to produce a steak. If I can do it in 10 seconds, that’d be much better. Customers would like it, the chef would like it. And that’s exactly what catalysis is doing now. The cooking is much better, much faster, much cheaper.”

On Monday, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch. And on Tuesday, they were joined by three winners of the prize for physics — Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi.

All male lineup

Wednesday’s award adds two further Nobel laureates. But for the second time in three years, no women were recognized in the scientific awards.

“We don’t have any direct discussions with other committees about who wins the prize, but we do have discussions about how to support and increase women and it’s also important to support geographic diversity,” said Claes Gustafsson, a professor in medical biochemistry at the University of Gothenburg and a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.

“We are inviting more women to be nominators and so on. It’s a long and strategic work,” he told CNN. “We were very happy to have two women (win the chemistry prize) last year and for sure we will have many women in the years to come. It’s a very high priority for us.”

In 2019, the Nobel Committee asked nominators to consider diversity in gender, geography and field, but that year only men were among the winners for the science Nobels. In 2020, three women in science were given Nobel recognition.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna jointly won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry, while Andrea Ghez was one of three winners of the physics prize.

The prizes for literature and peace will be announced later this week, before the economics award concludes the annual festivities on Monday.

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