Tuesday’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was won by two scientists who discovered a “ingenious” and more environmentally-friendly way to create molecules that can be used for many compounds, including pesticides and medicines.
Benjamin List’s work and David W.C. MacMillan’s have allowed scientists to make these molecules cheaper, more efficiently, and safer, and with significantly lower hazardous waste.
Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, who is a member the Nobel panel, stated that “it’s already greatly benefiting humanity,”
This was the second consecutive time that a Nobel awarded work with environmental implications. Just weeks before the launch of global climate negotiations in Scotland, the physics prize recognized developments that improved our understanding of climate change.
The Chemistry Prize was awarded to those who made molecules. This requires the linking of individual atoms in particular arrangements. It is a slow and difficult task. The only way for chemists to speed up this process was with catalysts. They could use either metal catalysts or complicated enzymes.
All that changed when List of the Max Planck Institute in Germany and MacMillan of Princeton University in New Jersey independently reported that small organic molecules could be used for the same task. These new tools are important in developing medicines and minimizing manufacturing errors that can lead to side effects.
Johan Aqvist (chair of the Nobel panel) described the method as “simple and ingenious.”
He said, “The truth is that many people have asked why we didn’t think of this earlier.”
MacMillan, upon hearing the news, told The Associated Press that he was shocked, shocked, happy and very proud.
He stated that he did not expect to be called by the Nobel committee. “I was a working-class kid growing up in Scotland. My father is a steelworker. My mother was a home worker. He said, “I was fortunate enough to get the chance to come to America to do my Ph.D.”
He was inspired by the messy process of making chemicals, which requires careful precautions similar to those at nuclear power plants.
He could find a way to “make medicines faster using a completely new way”, which didn’t require the use of vats of metal catalysts. This would make the process safer for workers and the environment. He stated that it would not only make it cheaper and faster but also improve the quality of the process, making it more sustainable for the environment and the world.
List, for his part, said that he didn’t know MacMillan was working in the same field at first and thought his “stupid idea”, until it turned out to be true.
The 53-year old said that he felt a eureka moment when he saw the system work.
H.N. Cheng, president American Chemical Society, stated that the laureates had “new magic wands.”
Cheng stated that prior to their work, the “standard catalysts commonly used were metals which often have environmental downsides.” They can accumulate, leach and may be dangerous.
He said that the catalysts MacMillan and List invented “are organic so their degradation will be faster and they are also more affordable.”
Their contributions to the development of key drugs, such as an antiviral or anti-anxiety medication, were noted by the Nobel panel.
John Lorsch, director of U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, said that “one way to view their work is as molecular carpentry.”
He said that they have found ways to speed up chemical joining, but also to ensure it goes only in the right-handed or left handed direction.
It is crucial to be able to control how new atoms are added into molecules. The Nobel panel explained that drugs can have unwanted side effects. They could include the devastating example of thalidomide which caused birth defects in children.
Peter Somfai was another member of this committee. He stressed the importance for the global economy of the discovery.
He said that catalysis accounts for 35% of the world’s GDP. This is quite impressive. “If we can find an environmentally-friendly alternative, it is expected that this will make a significant difference.”
List received a grant from the NIH in 2002. MacMillan has received ongoing funding from NIH since 2000. This totals around $14.5 Million.
Francis Collins, director at the NIH, stated that “It’s a great illustration of supporting basic science that doesn’t necessarily know what it’s going towards,” but it can have significant impacts.
List said that the tool was refined and made more efficient since its discovery. He added that this was just the beginning of the “real revolution”.
List stated that the award, which he called “huge surprise”, would give him more freedom in his future work.
He said, “I hope that I live up to these recognitions and continue to discover amazing things.”
Many scientists working in similar fields share the prize. This prestigious award includes a gold medal, 10 million Swedish Kronor (more than $1.14 million) and a prestigious award. Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor, left the bequest that funds the prize. He died in 1895.
The Nobel Committee awarded Monday’s prize in physiology/medicine to Ardem Patapoutian and David Julius of the United States for their research into temperature perception and touch.
Three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics Tuesday for their work in Physics. Their work helped to predict and explain complex forces of nature, and found order in apparent disorder.
In the days ahead, prizes will be presented for outstanding contributions in the areas of literature, peace, and economics.