This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to researchers who designed an environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to build very precise molecules. Since the invention in the year 2000, their invention has become a staple to create a wealth of materials that are integrated into our lives. “It is already of great benefit to humanity,” said Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, a member of the Nobel Committee on Chemistry.
Benjamin List and David WC MacMillan are the researchers behind what she calls an “elegant” tool for molecular construction. It’s called asymmetric organocatalysis, and it’s absolutely fascinating.
When, for example. Making a drug, the various molecules that make up the drug must be 100% accurate. Just a little binding out of place could turn what should have been a painkiller into an outdated packet of powder – or maybe even something dangerous.
The announcement came early in the day for List, who said it was a moment he will never forget.
“I thought someone was making a joke with me,” List remarked to the committee at first hearing that he won the award. “I ate breakfast with my wife.”
An interesting component in drug construction that medical researchers are struggling with has to do with the mirror images of molecules. Just as our hands are mirror images of each other, molecules also have reflections. The difference between the two is often so significant that a left molecule may have a different taste and smell than its right counterpart.
Our bodies can see the mirror images apart, which means that the medicine we take must also.
With that in mind, scientists are making specific chemical reactions to produce the exact type and mirror image of molecules they are looking for. Such reactions are controlled, initiated and accelerated by objects called catalysts. Before the groundbreaking invention of organocatalysis, everyone thought that their possibilities were only metal catalysts or large enzyme catalysts.
Although these compounds are effective, they can sometimes be inaccurate in the vital nuances of molecular construction and tend to leave too much chemical waste. Therefore, List and MacMillan’s tools changed the game. It introduced a third, new catalyst for the pool: small organic molecules that do not pose the same problems as metal and enzyme catalysts.
Wittung Stafshede called the groundbreaking development a “precise, cheap, fast and environmentally friendly” alternative to metal and enzyme catalysts.
“You are not solving a problem, you are adding something,” said committee member Peter Somfai. “We have a new tool that we can use when we think about it – how do we solve this problem?”
“The obvious answers or the obvious solutions are sometimes just too obvious,” he continued. “I’m an organic chemist, I work with small organic molecules every day – but I did not think about it … It was just too obvious.”
But even though the discovery was not made until the year 2000, List explained to the committee that it took a full 20 years to get started with the method of asymmetric organocatalysis. That is why he says that the invention is being recognized now.
“Our early catalysts were perhaps a million times less efficient,” he said, adding that the team’s extremely reactive can now do things that you can not do with enzymes or even the most sophisticated metal complexes that people have developed before. “