STOCKHOLM (AP) — Three scientists were jointly awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for developing a “sticking molecules together” method that could help design better drugs.
Americans Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless and Danish scientist Morten Meldal have been cited for their work on click chemistry and bioorthogonal reactions used to make cancer drugs, map DNA, and create materials based on are tailored for a specific purpose.
“It’s all about putting molecules together,” said Johan Aqvist, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who announced the winners on Wednesday at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
81-year-old Sharpless, who previously received a Nobel Prize in 2001 and is now the fifth person to win the award twice, first proposed the idea of connecting molecules with chemical “buckles” around the turn of the millennium, Aqvist said.
“The problem was finding good chemical buckles,” he said. “You have to react to each other simply and purposefully.”
Meldal, 68, based at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Sharpless, who is affiliated with Scripps Research, California, independently found the first such candidates that would easily snap together but not with other molecules, leading to applications in the manufacture of drugs and polymers.
Bertozzi, 55, who is based at Stanford University in California, “has taken click chemistry to a new level,” the Nobel panel said.
She found a way to make click chemistry work in living organisms without disturbing them and established a new method known as bioorthogonal reactions. Such reactions are now being used to study cells, follow biological processes, and develop drugs that can target diseases like cancer more precisely.
“Chemistry in human patients to ensure drugs get to the right place and stay out of the wrong place,” Bertozzi explained.
At a press conference following the announcement, Bertozzi said she was “absolutely stunned” to receive the award.
“I’m still not entirely sure if it’s real, but it’s getting more real by the minute,” she said.
Meldal said he received a call from the Nobel panel about half an hour before the public announcement.
“They (…) told me not to tell anyone. So I sat in my office shaking my pants in fear,” he told the Associated Press. “It’s a great honor.”
Meldal started out as an engineer. “But I wanted to understand the world, so I thought chemistry would give me the solutions,” he told the AP.
Last year, the prize went to scientists Benjamin List and David WC MacMillan for discovering a sophisticated and greener way of building molecules that the Nobel panel said is “already bringing great benefits to mankind.”
A week of Nobel Prize announcements began on Monday when Swedish scientist Svante Paabo received the Medicine Prize for unlocking the mysteries of Neanderthal DNA, which provided important insights into our immune system.
Three scientists jointly won the prize in physics on Tuesday. Frenchman Alain Aspect, American John F. Clauser and Austrian Anton Zeilinger had shown that tiny particles can remain connected to each other even when separated, a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement and used in specialized computers and encryption of information can be used.
The award ceremony continues on Thursday with literature. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the Economics Prize on Monday.
The prizes are worth 10 million Swedish kronor (almost US$900,000) and will be presented on December 10th. The money comes from a legacy left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, in 1895.
Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.
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