Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Benjamin List and David Macmillan for a new way of creating molecules

Nobel Laureates in Chemistry.

Benjamin List and David WC MacMillan have won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of “asymmetric organocatalysis”. This year’s award recognizes “an ingenious way to build molecules,” announced the spokesman for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The finding has had a major impact on the development of new less polluting drugs and chemicals.

The German Benjaim List, 53, is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, a center created more than 100 years ago that is currently specialized in catalysis. British David MacMillan, also 53, is a researcher at Princeton University, in the United States.

“At first I thought I was the only one in the world investigating this,” explained List on the phone during the press conference announcing the award. “I thought it was a stupid idea, but when I did the experiment and it worked, I realized that it could be something very important,” added the German chemist, who was on vacation with his family when he received the call from the Nobel committee. “You have made my day”, he highlighted.

In the early 2000s, List and MacMillan independently developed a third way to create new chemical compounds. Until then, the way to produce substances for industrial or medical use depended on two types of ingredients that accelerate a chemical reaction known as catalysts. They were metals or enzymes: ubiquitous proteins that, for example, allow digestion.

Enzymes are large molecules, with a multitude of protrusions, although only a small part of their structure is actually involved in the chemical reaction. What List tried to do is achieve the same reaction using only the small part of the enzyme that goes into the catalysis process: an amino acid called proline. And it worked.

One of the clearest examples of the importance of this third way to create molecules is the terrible deformations suffered by people affected by thalidomide, a drug for pregnant women sold in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This drug was a double molecule, one symmetrical to the other, as if they were in front of a mirror. While one version of thalidomide was harmless, the other caused terrible malformations in babies.

Asymmetric organocatalysis makes it possible to selectively produce a single version of the desired molecule and not its mirror image. MacMillan, for example, discovered various organic catalysts capable of producing the correct version in 90% of cases. The British researcher was the one who coined the name of this new form of catalysis. MacMillan announced its discovery in 2000 in a joint effort with colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley Kateri ahrendt and Christopher Borths. List published his find the same year Together with his colleagues from the Scripps Research Institute – where he worked then – Richard Lerner and Carlos Barbas III.

“The studies of these two scientists created a whole new field to generate organic molecules from other organic molecules”, highlights Raquel Pérez, researcher at the Institute of Chemical Synthesis and Homogeneous Catalysis (ISQCH), in Zaragoza.

This catalysis is essential for the so-called “green chemistry” that tries to reduce the environmental impact of the production of essential substances such as fuels or drugs. “This new form of catalysis is much more sustainable than that based on metals such as platinum or gold”, highlights Juan Mangas, Araid researcher at the CSIC. “Thanks to this way of synthesizing molecules, the impact of the extraction of these metals is avoided and costs are lowered”, he highlights.

“One of the applications of this technique is the development of organic catalysts that make it possible to manufacture drugs for mass use in a more efficient and cheap way. We are focusing for example on the production of warfarin [Sintrom]”, A drug widely used to prevent clots and thrombi, explains Eugenia Marqués, a researcher at the University of Zaragoza.

The French Emmanuelle Charpentier and the American Jennifer Doudna were recognized last year with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of a method for genomic editing”. Both researchers received the award for developing the CRISPR / Cas9 genomic editing technique, which works like molecular scissors that allow locating any sequence of the genetic code of an animal, plant or microbe (CRISPR) and cutting it (Cas9). This technology has been “revolutionary” for the life sciences, it is helping to develop new therapies against cancer and can make the cure of many inherited diseases of genetic origin a reality, the Academy noted.

The prize is endowed with 10 million Swedish crowns, about 980,000 euros. This award follows the announcement made on Monday of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and on Tuesday, that of Physics. On Friday, the one on Peace is announced and the one on Economy will be announced on Monday next week.

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Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Benjamin List and David Macmillan for a new way of creating molecules