Health

Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to ‘greener’ molecule building

Organic catalysts have allowed scientists to create medicines more efficiently.

October 6, 2021
Line drawings of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan, winners of The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021. Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach.

Two scientists will share the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for research on organic catalysts, a discovery that has helped drug development to be more environmentally friendly.

Benjamin List of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Germany and David MacMillan of Princeton University were recognized “for the development of asymmetric organocatalysts”, announced Göran Hansson, the secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, on Wednesday morning.

Chemists rely on catalysts to control and accelerate chemical reactions that produce drugs and solar cell materials, among others, according to a press release by the Nobel Committee. Scientists long believed that there were only two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes.

List and MacMillan each announced in 2000, independent of each other, that they had developed a third type of catalyst: asymmetric organocatalysts. These chemicals are organic molecules, containing elements commonly found in nature like oxygen and nitrogen, which makes the catalysts comparatively environmentally friendly and cheap to produce, according to the press release. Many catalysts use heavy metals, which are hazardous for the environment when not disposed properly. 

“This new toolbox is widely used today, for example in drug discovery and chemical production. It’s already benefiting humankind greatly,” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel panel, in the award announcement.

In a chemical reaction, two different versions of a molecule, mirror images of each other, can form from the same building blocks. Generally, only one version of a molecule works in the human body as intended — the other version is usually inert, but sometimes mirror-image molecules can be harmful.

Organic catalysts can be used to selectively produce one type of mirror image molecule over the other, which allows chemists to make purer, more effective compounds and safer medicines. 

Hansson said the committee had yet to successfully reach MacMillan at the time of the announcement. But List, who joined the award announcement through a phone call from Amsterdam, said he was elated when he got a phone call from the Nobel committee in Sweden.

“I absolutely did not expect this huge surprise,” he said. “I think you really made my day today.” 

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