Nobel prize goes to pioneers of Lego-like “click chemistry”

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By Johan Ahlander, Ludwig Burger and Marie Mannes

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Scientists Carolyn Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and Barry Sharpless on Wednesday received the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering reactions that snap molecules together to form new connections and that offer insights into cell biology.

The field of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry has been leveraged to improve the targeting of cancer pharmaceuticals currently being tested in clinical trials, along with a variety of healthcare, agricultural, and industrial applications.

“Combining simple chemical building blocks makes it possible to create an almost endless variety of molecules,” the revealer said in a statement, adding that “sometimes simple answers are best.”

Danish winner Medal described click chemistry as a way to build complex structures and connect them as if they were pieces of Lego, the plastic construction toy.

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The technology is used around the world to learn more about cells and track biological processes. It also allows stable molecules to be assembled in the laboratory without producing unwanted by-products that had hampered older methods.

Sharpless joins an elite group of scientists who have won two Nobel prizes. The other people are John Bardeen, who won the physics prize twice, Marie Curie, who won physics and chemistry, Linus Pauling, who won chemistry and peace, and Frederick Sanger, who won the chemistry prize twice.

“I’m absolutely stunned, I’m sitting here and I can hardly breathe,” said Bertozzi, from California, after the academy called her to announce her win.

She added that her work enabled her and her team to visualize and understand cell surface structures known as glycans, leading to a new idea in cancer immunotherapy.

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The academy said the award winners’ discoveries have been exploited well beyond oncology, enabling products such as antimicrobials, herbicides, diagnostic tests, corrosion inhibitors and brighteners.

Bertozzi works at Stanford University, Sharpless at the Scripps Research Institute, both in California, while Meldal works at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Meldal told Reuters that when the Nobel Committee called, his legs and body started shaking with excitement.

“It’s not every day that a Dane receives the Nobel Prize,” he said, adding that he was recording an instructional video when he heard the news and that he was very proud on behalf of his colleagues and team.

The chemistry Nobel Prize, the third of the awards to be unveiled over six consecutive weekdays, follows the awards in medicine and physics announced earlier this week.

The 2021 Chemistry Prize was won by German Benjamin List and Scottish-born David MacMillan for their work in developing new tools to build molecules, supporting the development of new medicines and in areas such as plastics.

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The awards for achievements in science, literature and peace were laid down in the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and entrepreneur Alfred Nobel, himself a chemist, and have been awarded since 1901. Economics came later.

The awards have been held each year with some hiatus, mostly for the world wars, and have not taken a break for the COVID-19 pandemic, although much of the pageantry and events have been suspended or temporarily moved online.

($1 = 10.9281 Swedish Krona)

(Reporting by Niklas Pollard, Simon Johnson and Johan Ahlander in Stockholm and Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt; additional reporting by Terje Solsvik in Oslo, Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm and Marie Mannes in Gdansk; editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

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