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STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A U.S. and two Japanese scientists won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday for inventing new ways to bind carbon atoms with uses that range from fighting cancer to producing thin computer screens.
Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki shared the prize for the development of "palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling," the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.
"Palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling is used in research worldwide, as well as in the commercial production of, for example, pharmaceuticals and molecules used in the electronics industry," the committee said.
Such chemicals include one found in small quantities in a sea sponge, which scientists aim to use to fight cancer cells. Thanks to the scientists' chemical tool, researchers can now artificially produce this substance, called discodermolide.
Heck, now with the University of Delaware in the United States, developed his work on palladium as a catalyst in the 1960s and early 1970s, while the other two came through with their variants of the same process in the late 1970s.
Negishi, who is at Purdue University in the United States, said he was sound asleep when the academy telephoned him at 5 a.m. local time, but was extremely happy to be woken.
"This means a lot. I would be telling a lie if I wasn't thinking about this. I told someone that I began thinking -- dreaming -- about this prize half a century ago."
Suzuki, of Hokkaido University in northern Japan, was also pleased and said science was important for his country.
"I don't know how much longer I'll live, but I want to continue to work to help young people," he told a news conference in Hokkaido.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan welcomed the news his two countrymen had won the prize. "I hope this encourages more young people and children to say 'I'll work hard to win a Nobel prize'," he told reporters in Tokyo.
Joseph Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society and himself a professor at Purdue, said the three worked in parallel for years. "They have just played off of each other," Francisco said in a telephone interview.
"Professors Negishi and Suzuki and Professor Heck have developed new catalysts for doing specific types of reactions that connect new atoms and connect new functional groups to allow a broader array of new compounds to be made."
"It revolutionizes the kinds of techniques that chemists have available to make new medicines and new plastics and new materials," he added.
The prize does not come as a surprise, Francisco said, because the work is so fundamental and significant.
The main problem the scientists overcame was how to make atoms of carbon, a very stable substance, more active and thus likely to link together to make bigger, more useful compounds.
Using palladium in the reaction meant fewer byproducts were made, giving a more precise and efficient tool for scientists.
The prize of 10 million crowns ($1.5 million) was the third of this year's Nobel prizes, following awards for medicine on Monday and for physics on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Maggie Fox in Washington, Simon Johnson and Mia Shanley in Stockholm; editing by Peter Millership)
$1=6.684 Swedish Crown