The 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to two scientists who have developed new tools to create mirror-image molecules, making it possible to create new drugs in a more environmentally friendly way.
Researchers Benjamin List of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research and David MacMillan of Princeton University received the award “because in 2000 they independently developed a third type of catalysis,” according to the Nobel Committee. written in a statement. Catalysts, which are substances that can both control and speed up chemical reactions, are important tools in chemistry. For a long time, scientists believed that there were only two types of catalysts: metals and enzymes. But the researchers created a third process called asymmetric organocatalysis that uses small organic molecules as catalysts, which opened up entirely new avenues for building molecules.
“Organic catalysts can be used to cause a multitude of chemical reactions,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in the statement. “Thanks to these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently build anything from new pharmaceuticals to light-capturing molecules in solar cells.”
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Chemists create new molecules by stringing together tiny chemical building blocks, but controlling this bonding process is a tricky task. Catalysts are important in guiding these reactions, but even they have their limitations. For example, conventional catalysts are often unable to prevent a common situation which occurs when a single process to build a desired molecule produces one of two possible molecules – each being the mirror image of the other, such as left and right hands. These mirror-image, or chiral, molecules can have very different properties and interactions with the body. For example, the mirror image molecule of levomethamphetamine – which is used in nasal inhalers to relieve stuffy noses – is dextromethamphetamine, both a therapeutic treatment used for ADHD and an illicit and highly addictive street drug.
But the asymmetric organocatalysis method developed by List and MacMillan – using tiny organic molecules as catalysts – circumvents this mirror image problem, allowing chemists to select the exact “sensitivity” of the molecule they want to create. This significantly reduces waste and the resulting costs in the production of lifesaving pharmaceuticals.
Organic catalysts are made by attaching common active chemical elements – such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus – to a stable structure of carbon atoms. This process is both inexpensive and environmentally friendly.
“This concept of catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we hadn’t thought of it sooner,” Johan Åqvist, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said in the statement. .
The prize comes with a prize of 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.15 million) to be shared equally between the two winners.
Originally posted on Live Science.