STOCKHOLM — Two scientists won the Nobel Prize for chemistry Wednesday for finding an “ingenious” and environmentally cleaner way to build molecules that can be used to make a variety of compounds, including medicines and pesticides.
The work of Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan has allowed scientists to produce those molecules more cheaply, efficiently, safely — and with significantly less hazardous waste.
“It’s already benefiting humankind greatly,” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel panel.
It was the second time in as many days that a Nobel rewarded work that had environmental implications. The physics prize honored developments that expanded our understanding of climate change, just weeks before the start of global climate negotiations in Scotland.
The chemistry prize focused on the making of molecules. That requires linking individual atoms together in specific arrangements — a difficult and slow task. Until the beginning of the millennium, chemists had only two methods — or catalysts — to speed up the process, using either complicated enzymes or metal catalysts.
That all changed when List, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and MacMillan, of Princeton University in New Jersey, independently reported that small organic molecules can be used to do the same job. The new tools have been important for developing medicines and minimizing drug manufacturing glitches, including problems that could cause harmful side effects.
Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel panel, called the method as “simple as it is ingenious.”
“The fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” he added.
Upon hearing the news, MacMillan told The Associated Press that he was “stunned, shocked, happy, very proud.”
He said he didn’t expect to get a call from the Nobel committee. “I grew up in Scotland, a working class kid. My dad’s a steelworker. My mom was a home help. … I was lucky enough to get a chance to come to America, to do my Ph.D.,” he said.
His inspiration came when thinking about the dirty process of making chemicals — one that requires precautions he likened to those taken at nuclear power plants.
If he could devise a way of “making medicines faster by a completely different way” that didn’t require vats of metal catalysts, the process would be safer for both workers and the planet. “We recognized that not only would it make it faster, cheaper, it would also make it better — better for the environment, better for the world,” he said.
For his part, List told reporters that he did not initially know that MacMillan was working on the same subject and figured his hunch might just be a “stupid idea” — until it worked.
“When I saw it worked, I did feel that this could be something big,” the 53-year-old said of his eureka moment.
H.N. Cheng, president of the American Chemical Society, said the laureates developed “new magic wands.”
Before the their work, “the standard catalysts frequently used were metals, which frequently have environmental downsides,” said Cheng. “They accumulate, they leach, they may be hazardous.”
The catalysts that MacMillan and List pioneered “are organic so they will degrade faster, and they are also cheaper,” he said.
The Nobel panel noted their contributions made the production of key drugs easier, including an antiviral and an anti-anxiety medication.
“One way to look at their work is like molecular carpentry,” said John Lorsch, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
“They’ve found ways to not only speed up the chemical joining,” he said, “but to make sure it only goes in either the right-handed or left-handed direction.”
The ability to control the orientation in which new atoms are added to molecules is important. Failing to do so can result in unwanted side effects in drugs, the Nobel panel explained, citing the catastrophic example of thalidomide, which caused birth defects in children.
Peter Somfai, another member of the committee, stressed the importance of the discovery for the world economy.
“It has been estimated that catalysis is responsible for about 35% of the world’s GDP, which is a pretty impressive figure,” he said. “If we have a more environmentally friendly alternative, it’s expected that that will make a difference.”
The NIH supported List’s research with a grant in 2002 and MacMillan’s work has received continuous funding from NIH since 2000, totaling around $14.5 million to date.
“It’s a great example of supporting basic science that you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go,” but can have major impacts, said Francis Collins, director of the NIH.
Since their discovery, the tool has been further refined, making it many times more efficient, said List, adding that the “real revolution” was only just beginning.
List said the award — which he called a “huge surprise”— would allow him even greater freedom in his future work.
“I hope I live up to this, to this recognition and continue discovering amazing things,” he said.
It is common for several scientists who work in related fields to share the prize. The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.14 million). The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.
On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize in physiology or medicine to Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch.
The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded Tuesday to three scientists whose work found order in seeming disorder, helping to explain and predict complex forces of nature.
Over the coming days prizes will also be awarded for outstanding work in the fields of literature, peace and economics.
Jordans reported from Berlin and Larson from Washington. Associated Press journalists Mike Corder in Amsterdam and Ted Shaffrey in Princeton, New Jersey, contributed.
Read more stories about Nobel Prizes past and present at https://www.apnews.com/NobelPrizes.
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