Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded to a duo whose method solves the “mirror image problem” in chemistry

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to two scientists who have developed new tools to build mirror-image molecules, making it possible to create new drugs in a more environmentally friendly way.

Researchers Benjamin List, of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, and David MacMillan, of Princeton University, received the award “because in 2000, they independently developed a third type of catalysis “, according to the Nobel committee. written in a press release. Catalysts, which are substances that can both control and accelerate chemical reactions, are important tools in chemistry. For a long time, scientists believed that there were only two types of catalysts: metals and enzymes. But researchers have created a third process called asymmetric organocatalysis that uses small organic molecules as catalysts, which has opened up entirely new avenues for the construction of molecules.

“Organic catalysts can be used to drive a multitude of chemical reactions,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in the statement. “Using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules capable of capturing light in solar cells.”

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Chemists create new molecules by stringing together tiny chemical building blocks, but controlling this binding process is a delicate task. Catalysts are important in guiding these reactions, but even they have their limitations. For example, conventional catalysts are often unable to prevent a common situation that occurs when a single process to build a desired molecule produces one of two possible molecules – each being a mirror image of the other, such as left and right hands. These mirror-image, or chiral, molecules can have very different properties and interactions with the body. For example, the mirror molecule of levomethamphetamine – which is used in nasal inhalers to relieve a stuffy nose – is dextromethamphetamine, both a therapeutic used for ADHD as well as the illicit and highly addictive street drug.

But the asymmetric organocatalysis method developed by List and MacMillan – using tiny organic molecules as catalysts – gets around this mirror-image problem, allowing chemists to select the exact “workability” of the molecule they want to create. This dramatically reduces the waste, and the associated cost, in the production of life-saving pharmaceuticals.

Organic catalysts are made by attaching common, active chemical elements – like oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus – to a stable structure of carbon atoms. This process is both inexpensive and environmentally friendly.

“This concept of catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we had not thought of it sooner,” Johan Åqvist, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said in the statement. .

The prize is accompanied by a prize of 10 million Swedish kronor ($ 1.15 million) to be shared equally between the two winners.

Originally posted on Live Science.

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