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French and US chemists win Nobel for carbon “dance”

October 5, 2005

By Simon Johnson

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Frenchman Yves Chauvin and Americans
Robert Grubbs and Richard Schrock won the 2005 Nobel Chemistry
prize for showing how to tailor-make molecules for cheaper,
cleaner chemicals and drugs to combat major diseases.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded them the 10
million crown prize for work in metathesis, where molecules
“dance round and change partners” to create new molecules.

In an unusual step, two men and two women from the
committee then took to the floor of the wood-panelled academy
hall and danced quietly from partner to partner to give a
simple illustration of the trio’s complex work.

Their research into metathesis laid the groundwork for the
production of new drugs to treat illnesses like Alzheimer’s,
Down’s Syndrome, HIV/AIDS and cancer, as well as having uses in
making food, chemicals and plastics.

“Imagination will soon be the only limit to what molecules
can be built,” said the Academy citation, calling metathesis
“an example of how important basic science has been applied for
the benefit of man, society and the environment.”

Describing the prize as “very meaningful,” Schrock said he
“might buy a bottle of wine to celebrate, a bottle that’s been
too expensive until now.”

“We have shown how to make catalysts for this reaction, now
organic chemists can use this reaction for many things, for
example for making drugs,” he told Reuters by telephone from
his home in Massachusetts in the United States.

Grubbs, who was lecturing in New Zealand, said the news was
“still sinking in. I’ll probably have a couple of drinks and
try to get some sleep.”

CHANGING PARTNERS

Metathesis, which means “changing places,” refers to the
reorganisation of groups of atoms of carbon which form the
building blocks of all organic life on earth.

Chauvin, who is 74 and works at the French Petroleum
Institute, provided the “recipe” for this in 1971.

Schrock, who is 60 and works at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology and Grubbs, who is 63 and works at the California
Institute of Technology, developed effective and more stable
catalysts to reproduce the reaction.

“The laureates’ work has opened up fantastic possibilities
in one of chemistry’s most central areas,” Hakan Wennerstrom of
the Swedish Academy said.

“We tend to only think about the pharmaceutical industry,
but there is also the vast biotech sector.”

Although the research has led to new drugs and plastic
materials, only a small part of its potential applications have
so far been looked into including the synthesis of insect
pheromones, herbicides and additives for fuels.

The process, which cuts the number of steps necessary to
synthesise new molecules, thereby reducing cost, is also yet to
be widely used in industry.

Adoption by manufacturers will be “a great step forward for
‘green chemistry’, reducing potential hazardous waste through
smarter production,” the Academy said.




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