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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 09:51 GMT 10:51 UK
Molecular control earns Nobel
Graphic BBC
The 2001 Nobel Prize for chemistry honours work that allows scientists to make only one version of a molecule that has mirrored forms.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences picked out Americans William S Knowles and K Barry Sharpless and Ryoji Noyori of Japan for their pioneering efforts in this field.

The atoms in certain molecules can often take up two different configurations that are mirror images of each other - just as four fingers and a thumb can be arranged into a left hand or a right hand.

Cells generally respond to only one of the shapes, while the other form can, in extreme cases, be harmful. The thalidomide disaster in the 1960s resulted from the use of a molecule with the wrong handedness.

Drug products

Knowles, Sharpless and Noyori were responsible for developments that now mean pharmaceutical companies can choose the specific shape they want of a particular molecule and synthesise only that version.

The academy said the results of the laureates' basic research were being used in a number of drug products like antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and heart medicines.

Ryoji Noyori AFP
Ryoji Noyori: Responsible for more controlled synthesis
Their experiments had shown the way in which certain molecules could be used to speed up and control important chemical reactions, it said.

Molecules that contain the same atoms but take up different, mirrored configurations are known as optical isomers; they are said to be chiral. And chiral molecules play a fundamental role in nature.

All the naturally occurring amino acids - the group of molecules used by the body to construct proteins - are chiral and have the same handedness. Life, as we know it, would not be possible if they did not.

Mirrored configuration

The natural sugar in milk (lactose) is also chiral. If milk were made using the sugar's mirrored configuration it might taste different and it would probably not be as nutritious because the human digestive system would have difficulty processing it.

The diet food industry uses this knowledge to create sweeteners that the body cannot metabolise and so cannot contribute to weight gain.

But it is in the pharmaceutical industry that handedness is of acute importance. Understanding and controlling chirality has led to the creation of many important drugs, such as beta-blockers, which are used the world over to treat high blood pressure and other heart-related disorders.

Their effectiveness rests on the ability of scientists to synthesise the correctly handed version of the molecule glycidal butyrate.

The often-quoted example of a wrong-handed molecule having disastrous consequences is thalidomide. The drug was manufactured as a racemic mixture - a 50-50 combination of both shapes.

One isomer produced the desired sedative effect in pregnant women with morning sickness; the other led to foetal abnormalities.

Speedy reactions

Wednesday's Nobel laureates have played a crucial role in developing the ability to manufacture only the desired shape of a molecule.

William Knowles discovered that it was possible to use certain metals to make chiral catalysts - substances that will speed up chemical reactions - for an important type of reaction called hydrogenation. This made it much easier to obtain the desired mirror image form as the final product in a reaction.

His research quickly led to an industrial process for the production of the L-Dopa drug, which is used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease. Ryoji Noyori further developed the process to provide today's general chiral catalysts for hydrogenation.

Barry Sharpless is honoured for developing chiral catalysts for another important type of reaction - oxidation. It was this work that paved the way for beta-blockers.

In a break from tradition, the announcement of the Nobel Prize for chemistry has not been made on the same day as the prize for physics. The academy decided this year to break up the sciences, believing a separate announcement would give each prize greater prominence and publicity.

84-year-old Knowles, of the University of Columbia in St Louis, Missouri, and 63-year-old Noyori, of Nagoya University in Japan, share half of the 10 million kronor (650,000) award. 60-year-old Sharpless, a chemistry professor at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, wins the other half.

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"It means fewer side effects"
See also:

10 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
09 Oct 01 | Science/Nature
08 Oct 01 | Health
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