Nobel prize goes to pioneers of Lego-like “click chemistry”

  • Danish winner Meldal says click chemistry is like Lego
  • Technology has been used to target cancer treatment
  • Prize worth more than $900,000

STOCKHOLM, Oct 5 (Reuters) – Scientists Carolyn Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and Barry Sharpless won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for discovering reactions that allow molecules to click together to create new compounds, providing insights into cell biology.

The field of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry has been exploited to improve the targeting of cancer drugs now being tested in clinical trials, along with a range of health, agricultural and industrial applications.

“Combining simple chemical building blocks makes it possible to create an almost infinite variety of molecules,” the awarding body said in a statement, adding that “sometimes simple answers are the best”.

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Danish Medal winner described click chemistry as a way to build complex structures and connect them as if they were pieces of Lego, the plastic construction toy.

The technology is used globally to learn more about cells and track biological processes. It also allows assembly in the laboratory of stable molecules without creating unwanted byproducts that had hampered older methods.

Sharpless joins an elite group of scientists who have won two Nobel Prizes. The other people are John Bardeen, who won the Physics Prize twice, Marie Curie, who won the Physics and Chemistry Prize, Linus Pauling, who won the Chemistry and Peace Prize, and Frederick Sanger, who won the Chemistry Prize twice.

“I’m completely stunned, I’m sitting here and I can hardly breathe,” Bertozzi said from California after the academy reached her by phone with the news of her win.

She added that as part of her work, she and her team managed to visualize and understand cell surface structures known as glycans, which led to a new idea in cancer immunotherapy.

The academy said the laureates’ discoveries had been used well beyond oncology, enabling products such as antimicrobials, herbicides, diagnostic tests, corrosion inhibitors and brighteners.

Bertozzi works at Stanford University, Sharpless works at the Scripps Research Institute, both in California, while Meldal is at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Meldal told Reuters his legs and body began to shake with excitement when the Nobel committee called.

“It’s not every day that a Dane gets the Nobel Prize,” he said, adding that he had recorded a teaching video when he received the news and that he was very proud on behalf of his colleagues and team.

The third of the prizes revealed over six consecutive weekdays, the chemistry Nobel follows those for medicine and physics that were announced earlier this week.

The 2021 Chemistry Prize was won by German Benjamin List and Scottish-born David MacMillan for their work in creating new tools to build molecules that help in the development of new medicines as well as in areas such as plastics.

The prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were established in the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel, himself a chemist, and have been awarded since 1901. Economics was added later.

The awards have been presented every year with a few interruptions, primarily for the world wars, and did not pause for the COVID-19 pandemic, although much of the pageantry and events were put on hold or temporarily moved online.

($1 = 10.9281 Swedish kroner)

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Reporting by Niklas Pollard, Simon Johnson and Johan Ahlander in Stockholm and Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt; additional reporting by Terje Solsvik in Oslo, Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm and Marie Mannes in Gdansk; editing by Frank Jack Daniel

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Mary Mannes

Thomson Reuters

Gdansk-based reporter covering the Nordic stock markets and general business news.

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