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Heck, Suzuki, Negishi Win Chemistry Nobel Prize

Japanese scientist Akira Suzuki
Japanese scientist Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido University, who shares the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing chemical reactions that help create large quantities of organic substances that can be used for medicine. Source: Hokkaido University via Bloomberg

Two Japanese scientists and an American researcher won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for making it easier to recreate carbon-based molecules found in nature that can be used for medicines.

Richard F. Heck, 79, of the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, Akira Suzuki, 80, of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, and Ei-Ichi Negishi, 75, of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, will share the 10 million-kronor ($1.5 million) award, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said at a press conference in Stockholm today.

They won for finding “more efficient ways of linking carbon atoms together to build the complex molecules that are improving our everyday lives,” according to the Nobel statement. The work, known as palladium-catalyzed cross coupling, helps develop medicines and “ever more precise electronics,” according to the statement.

“The metal-based ‘coupling’ reactions pioneered by this year’s three chemistry Nobel laureates have led to countless breakthroughs,” said David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, in an e-mailed statement today. “The Heck, Negishi and Suzuki reactions make possible the vital fluorescent marking that underpins DNA sequencing, and are essential tools for synthetic chemists creating complex new drugs and polymers.”

Negishi went to bed after midnight last night in Indiana and was sound asleep when the Nobel call came at 5 a.m. local time. He moved to the U.S. to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1960.

‘Dreaming’ of Prize

“I was dreaming about this prize half a century ago,” he said by phone to the Nobel news conference. “When I came to America and when I encountered several Nobel laureates coming to UPenn in Philadelphia, I realized it’s not a story but it’s a reality, and it can happen to anyone including myself.”

Negishi said his work is only half over, and he plans to use the prize money to fulfill his research. “I’m interested in all organic molecules and synthesizing them in the best possible way,” he said.

He doesn’t own any patents on the cross-coupling technique. “In this way I feel more people feel free to make use of what we come up with,” he said.

Last year’s prize in chemistry went to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, of the U.K.; Thomas A. Steitz, of the United States; and Ada E. Yonath, of Israel, for their work on how the DNA code is translated into life, findings that have been used to fight infectious disease.

Nobel’s Will

Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. The Nobel Foundation was established in 1900 and the prizes were first handed out the following year.

Yesterday, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering graphene, a one-atom-thick “wonder material” that may transform electronics, allowing for speedier computers and folding touchscreens.

On Oct. 4, Robert G. Edwards, a British physiologist and pioneer in reproductive medicine, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for developing in-vitro fertilization.

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