Catalysis is focus of 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

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.

K. 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 (‑

K. 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 (