The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2001

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2001 for the development of catalytic asymmetric synthesis, with one half jointly to William S. Knowles, St Louis, Missouri, USA, and Ryoji Noyori, Nagoya University, Chikusa, Nagoya, Japan “for their work on chirally catalysed hydrogenation reactions” and the other half to K. Barry Sharpless, the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California, USA “for his work on chirally catalysed oxidation reactions”.

Mirror Image Catalysis
Many molecules appear in two forms that mirror each other – just as our hands mirror each other. Such molecules are called chiral. In nature one of these forms is often dominant, so in our cells one of these mirror images of a molecule fits “like a glove”, in contrast to the other one which may even be harmful. Pharmaceutical products often consist of chiral molecules, and the difference between the two forms can be a matter of life and death – as was the case, for example, in the thalidomide disaster in the 1960s. That is why it is vital to be able to produce the two chiral forms separately.

This year’s Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have developed molecules that can catalyse important reactions so that only one of the two mirror image forms is produced. The catalyst molecule, which itself is chiral, speeds up the reaction without being consumed. Just one of these molecules can produce millions of molecules of the desired mirror image form.

William S. Knowles discovered that it was possible to use transition metals to make chiral catalysts for an important type of reaction called hydrogenation, thereby obtaining the desired mirror image form as the final product. His research quickly led to an industrial process for the production of the L-DOPA drug which is used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Ryoji Noyori has led the further development of this process to today’s general chiral catalysts for hydrogenation.

Barry Sharpless, on the other hand, is awarded half of the Prize for developing chiral catalysts for another important type of reaction – oxidation.

The Laureates have opened up a completely new field of research in which it is possible to synthesise molecules and material with new properties. Today the results of their basic research are being used in a number of industrial syntheses of pharmaceutical products such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and heart medicines.

  • William S. Knowles, 84 years, born 1917 (US citizen).
    PhD 1942 at Columbia University. Previously at Monsanto
    Company, St Louis, USA. Retired since 1986.
  • Ryoji Noyori, 63 years, born 1938 Kobe, Japan (Japanese citizen). PhD 1967 at Kyoto University. Since 1972 Professor of Chemistry at Nagoya University and since 2000 Director of the Research Center for Materials Science, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan.
    Barry Sharpless, 60 years, born 1941 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA (US citizen). PhD 1968 at Stanford University. Since 1990 W.M. Keck Professor of Chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, USA.

Prize amount: SEK 10 million. Knowles and Noyori share one half and Sharpless receives the other half.
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