The three winners of this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry all developed new ways to make carbon atoms stick to one another -- a mundane-sounding process that in fact underlies the very basis of life.
The processes can be used to make new drugs -- notably cancer drugs based on the toxins produced by a Caribbean sea sponge -- but also to create electronics and a variety of other compounds.
Richard Heck, who retired from the University of Delaware and now lives in the Philippines, Ei-ichi Negishi at Purdue University in Indiana and Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido University in Japan all work in a field called organic chemistry, not the "organic" like in organic foods, but a reference to carbon, the basis of life as we know it.
"Carbon-carbon bonds are the lifeblood of organic synthesis," said Dr. Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
"If you think about building a house, the carbon-carbon bonds are the framing," added Berg, whose agency has helped fund Negishi's work for 20 years.
Often when a trio of scientists wins a Nobel prize, they have either worked together or built upon and improved one another's work, but in this case the three worked in parallel and each has a chemical reaction named after him.
The prize was awarded for their various catalyzation techniques using palladium, a rare metal in the same general family of elements as platinum.
The palladium is the catalyst, meaning it helps make a chemical reaction occur more quickly or efficiently. In this case it works almost like a matchmaker, pulling together carbon molecules and then butting out.
"You only need a small amount," Berg said.
"It helps make the carbon-carbon bond, gets released and then you can use it over and over again," he added. "It's part of the green chemistry trend."
SPEEDING UP PROCESS
Being able to speed up the building process can help scientists synthesize compounds that otherwise would be hard to make.
For instance, many cancer drugs are based on naturally occurring toxins. A sea sponge called Discodermia dissoluta makes a poison to keep itself from being eaten and it turns out this toxin can also stop rapidly growing cells, such as tumor cells.
It is similar to taxol, another cancer drug based on a compound made by Pacific yew trees.
The palladium catalyzation process can be used to make a version of the toxin, called discodermalide, in the lab. A team at Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis worked to make discodermalide but stopped human trials because it was too toxic. Some labs are still working on it, however.
Joseph Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society and a colleague of Negishi's at Purdue, said it was not a surprise that the method would win a Nobel, even out of the tens of thousands of potential candidates in an area as broad as chemistry.
"It revolutionizes the kinds of techniques that chemists have available to make new medicines and new plastics and new materials," Francisco said in a telephone interview.
"But with Nobel prizes, you don't know where they are going to go."