Three scientists were awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for discovering a way to “bring molecules together” that could be used to make better drugs.
Americans Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless, and Danish scientist Morten Meldal were honored for their work in molecular bonding chemistry and bio-orthogonal chemistry, which refers to chemical reactions within living systems.
These processes are used to make anti-cancer drugs, to design DNA, and to create materials that are specifically tailored to achieve a particular target.
“It’s about the process of putting molecules together,” said Johan Aqvist, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who announced the winners Wednesday at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
The 81-year-old Sharpless also won the Nobel Prize in 2001, becoming the fifth person to receive the prize twice.
Meldal, 68, of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and Mr. Sharpless, a researcher at the Scripps Research Institution in California, each independently discovered the first such molecules that would readily attach to each other but not to other molecules, resulted in the use of this process in the production of medicines and polymers, materials that consist of large molecules, called macromolecules.
Bertozzi, 55, of California’s Stanford University, took this kind of process to “a new level,” the Nobel Committee said.
She found a way to make the chemistry of attaching molecules to each other work inside living organisms without harming them, creating a new method known as bio-orthogonal reactions. Such reactions are now used to explore cells, track biological processes and create more precise treatments for diseases such as cancer.
“Using chemical processes inside patients to make sure drugs go to the right place and stay away from the wrong part of the body,” said scientist Bertozzi.
Speaking by phone at a news conference after the announcement, she said she was “absolutely blown away” by receiving the award.
“I still can’t believe it, but it’s getting more real by the minute,” she said.
Mr. Meldal said he received a phone call from the Nobel committee about half an hour before the award was announced.
“I was told not to tell anyone. So I sat inside my office and waited with excitement,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s a great honor.”