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American, 2 Japanese Scientists Share Chemistry Nobel

  • Kevin Billinghurst

Akira Suzuki, emeritus professor of Hokkaido University, smiles as he leaves his home in Ebetsu for the university in Sapporo in Hokkaido, northern Japan, to hold a press conference, 6 Oct 2010

An American and two Japanese scientists have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a process called "palladium-catalyzed cross coupling" that has potential uses ranging from helping kill cancer cells to providing ultra-slim computer screens.

The Nobel chemistry prize is shared this year by American Richard Heck of the University of Delaware, Japanese-born Ei-ichi Negishi of Purdue University in Indiana, and Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.

The three are honored for their work in linking carbon atoms together to create a complex molecule upon which new drugs can be tested.

The method is in use worldwide in electronics manufacturing, and in commercial production of pharmaceuticals.

Christina Moberg, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, explains. "What is particularly interesting is pharmaceuticals against cancer, where you need poisonous compounds because you need to kill the cancer cells," he said. "Nature is very good at making poisonous compounds, and many of them are found in the sea. But they are difficult to find and they are formed in very, very small amounts, so you need to make them in the laboratory to get enough, first for testing and then for treatment of the cancers."

"You also need to be able to vary the structure, because very often patients become immune to the pharmaceutical, and then you need to modify the structure. Nature doesn't do that, but in the lab you can do it," he added.

Reached by an early-morning phone call to his home in Indiana, Ei-ichi Negishi, now 75 years old, said that the Nobel Prize has been a cherished aspiration since he came to study in the United States more than 50 years ago.

"As a young student I realized that, to be of service to society, I needed to really study this field of chemistry, to build up my solid foundation. For me, who grew up in Japan, there was one choice. That was for me to first of all learn English, and then come to this country and revamp my foundation in science from scratch. This country permitted me to do that. A Nobel Prize became a dream of mine when I was in my twenties," said Negishi.

Negichi, Heck and Suzuki will share the $1.3 million cash award. All three have accepted an invitation to receive their gold medals in a formal ceremony in the Swedish capital on December 10.