3 share Nobel Prize in chemistry for finding new ways to bond carbon atoms

By Karl Ritter and Malin Rising
Thursday, October 7, 2010

An American and two Japanese scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for finding new ways to bond carbon atoms together, methods now widely used to make medicines and in agriculture and electronics.

Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki were honored for their development in the 1960s and '70s of one of the most sophisticated tools available to chemists today, called palladium-catalyzed cross coupling.

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

The method invented by Heck is used in herbicide production, the academy said.

Heck, 79, a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, now lives in the Philippines. Negishi, 75, is a chemistry professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and Suzuki, 80, is a retired professor from Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.

The techniques developed by the three scientists have been used to artificially produce cancer-killing substances first found in marine sponges, the academy said in its citation. It is not yet clear whether the artificial substances will turn out to be useful drugs.

The techniques are 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 percent of all chemical reactions in the pharmaceutical industry are actually based on these methods," he said.

Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling is also used by the electronics industry in the coating of electronic circuits and as a tool to develop thinner computer screens in the future, said prize committee member Jan Erling Backvall.

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 another.

Heck was the only American among the Nobel science winners this year. There had been at least two U.S. scientists among the medicine, physics and chemistry laureates since 1991, when there was none.

- Associated Press

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