Health: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The Story:

This year the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to two scientists who, independently of one another, developed “asymmetric organocatalysis.” This has proved of enormous importance in the creation of new drugs.


A “catalyst” is any chemical that helps generate a reaction between other chemicals while remaining itself unchanged: like a matchmaker who never gets married, but at the molecular level.

For a long time, scientists believed that there were only two sorts of catalyst: metals, and enzymes. Enzymes were the important ones, for biochemical research and the production of pharmaceuticals — yet enzymes are very complicated and difficult to work with.

Benjamin List and David W. C. MacMillan, a German and an America respectively, independently discovered in the year 2000 there are other catalysts, indeed that a single organic molecule can act as a catalyst.

In Pill Form:

H.N. Cheng, the president of the American Chemical Society, put the contribution of List and MacMillan in simple terms after the award was announced. “If you’re cooking a dish, you’re actually doing a chemical reaction. So say it takes 10 minutes to produce a steak. If I can do it in 10 seconds, that’d be much better. Customers would like it, the chef would like it.”

In this case, the cooks are biopharma researchers, and the ultimate customers are the patients who may be benefitted by the new drugs that can be tested and approved more quickly than before due to asymmetric organocatalysis.

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