Two Americans and a Danish scientist have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering a new way of putting molecules together called “click chemistry” which is transforming pharmaceutical and medical research, development and manufacturing.
Carolyn Bertozzi of Stanford University and Barry Sharpless of Scripps Research, both in California, share the SKr10m ($914,000) prize with Morten Meldal of the University of Copenhagen. Sharpless, 81, had already received a Nobel in 2001 for a discovery in organic chemistry.
The three laureates’ work “laid the foundation for a functional form of chemistry in which molecular building blocks snap together quickly and efficiently”, said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Click chemistry is a way of combining two molecules — the chemical equivalent of connecting Lego pieces — that is being increasingly used in lab experiments for drug development and for mapping DNA.
“It has led to a revolution in how chemists think about joining molecules together,” said Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel chemistry committee. “This year’s prize deals with not overcomplicating matters, instead working with what is easy and simple.”
Sharpless invented the concept about 20 years ago, in an effort to make the production of new molecules simpler and more reliable, with faster reactions and fewer unwanted chemical by-products. Soon afterwards, he and Meldal came up with a specific reaction using click technology.
Then Bertozzi “took click chemistry to a new level”, the academy said.
She discovered how to make it work inside living organisms without disrupting their own chemical activities, a process known as bio-orthogonal reactions. These are now used by pharmaceutical groups to track biological processes and make drugs that target diseases such as cancer more effectively.
“This type of chemistry links together chemical building blocks in a predictable way, almost like Lego,” said Angela Wilson, president of the American Chemical Society. “Putting these building blocks together opens up a range of possibilities from drug development to materials to diagnostics.”
“I’m absolutely stunned,” Bertozzi said after the academy called her with the news. She said she hoped her discipline of chemical biology would benefit from the award: “The attention that the Nobel Prize brings can be incredibly energising.”
Although click and bio-orthogonal chemistry are already used in practical applications, “the field is still in its early phase”, Bertozzi added. “We have a range of incredible reactions but just a handful of them. [They] are so simple and selective that the yields tend to be very high. Click reactions are already being performed at manufacturing scale in the pharma industry.”
Sharpless is only the fourth person ever to win two Nobel science prizes, following in the footsteps of Marie Curie, John Bardeen and Frederick Sanger.
The chemistry award is the last of this year’s science Nobels to be announced, after Svante Pääbo won the medicine prize on Monday for decoding the DNA of ancient humans and three scientists shared the physics prize on Tuesday for discoveries in quantum technology. The literature prize will be revealed on Thursday, peace on Friday and economics on Monday.