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Three share Nobel chemistry prize

They simplified how compounds can be formed

By Malcolm Ritter and Karl Ritter
Associated Press / October 7, 2010

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NEW YORK — A method for building complex molecules has paid off by helping to fight cancer, protect crops, and make electronic devices. Now it has earned its developers a Nobel Prize.

Three men — two Japanese scientists and a researcher who was born in Springfield, Mass. — designed the technique to bind together carbon atoms, a key step in assembling the skeletons of organic compounds used in medicine, agriculture, and electronics.

Their work in the 1960s and 1970s provided “one of the most sophisticated tools available to chemists today [and] vastly improved the possibilities for chemists to create sophisticated chemicals,’’ the Nobel committee said.

The winners are Richard Heck, 79, a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware who was born in Springfield but now lives in the Philippines; Ei-ichi Negishi, 75, a chemistry professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and Akira Suzuki, 80, a retired professor from Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.

Carbon atoms are normally resistant to pairing up. The winning approach was to use atoms of the metal palladium as a place where pairs of carbon atoms are jammed together and encouraged to bond. This idea, called palladium-catalyzed cross coupling, was easier to do than previous methods.

Heck published his initial work in 1968 and an improved method in 1972. In 1977, Negishi developed a variant of the palladium approach, and two years later Suzuki developed another.

Their methods are now widely used in industry and research.

“I don’t think anybody thinks about making a complicated organic compound without considering one of these three reactions,’’ said Keith Woerpel, a chemistry professor at New York University.

By one estimate, they are the basis for at least 25 percent of all chemical reactions in the pharmaceutical industry, said Nobel committee member Claes Gustafsson.

That includes the production of the common painkiller naproxen, widely sold as Aleve and other brands; new antibiotics; an asthma drug; and a synthetic version of a substance from a marine sponge that might fight cancer. Heck’s work was adapted to make the cancer drug Taxol, steroids, and morphine, the Nobel committee said.

In agriculture, the palladium approach is used to make chemicals that protect crops from fungi and other pests. And the electronics industry uses the approach for coating electronic circuits and as a tool for developing future computer screens that are thinner, Nobel committee member Jan-Erling Backvall said.

Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Md., said the three winners did “very fundamental and important work.’’

Bonds between carbon atoms “are really the lifeblood of the ability to make organic compounds,’’ Berg said. “Making the carbon-carbon bond is really sort of the framework. It’s like the framing of a house. You can add on other pieces later on, but the carbon-carbon formation is really a key part of it.’’

The palladium approach makes carbon atoms bond “very easily, very cleanly,’’ said Joseph Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society and a colleague of Negishi’s in Purdue’s chemistry department.

Heck, who received his undergraduate degree and doctorate from the University of California at Los Angeles, was the only American among the Nobel science winners this year. In recent years, there have been at least two US scientists among the medicine, physics, and chemistry laureates.

Heck, who has retired from active research, said the award would probably not spur any major change in his settled life in the Philippines, where he lives with his Filipino wife and tends to an orchid garden and pet birds.

“It’s a nice thing to have, but I don’t think this is going to change my life. I’m too old,’’ Heck said in an interview in his suburban Manila home.

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