Scientists Carolyn Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and Barry Sharpless won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for their discovery of reactions that make molecules join together to form new compounds and that offer insights into cell biology.
The field of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry has been used to improve the targeting of anticancer drugs that are now being tested in clinical trials, along with a variety of medical, agricultural and industrial applications.
“The combination of simple chemical building blocks makes it possible to create an almost infinite variety of molecules,” the award said in a statement, adding that “sometimes the simple answers are the best.”
The Danish Medal winner described click chemistry as a way to build complex structures and connect them as if they were Lego pieces, the plastic construction toys.
This technology is used around the world to learn more about cells and monitor biological processes. It also allows the assembly of stable molecules in the laboratory without the formation of unwanted byproducts that limited older methods.
Sharpless joins an elite group of scientists who have won two Nobel Prizes. Other individuals include John Bardeen, who won the physics prize twice, Marie Curie, who won the physics and chemistry prizes, Linus Pauling, who won the chemistry and peace prizes, and Frederick Sanger, who won the chemistry prize twice.
“I’m absolutely stunned, I’m sitting here and I’m barely breathing,” 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 were able to visualize and understand cell surface structures known as glycans, leading to a new idea in cancer immunotherapy.
The academy said the laureates’ discoveries have been used far beyond oncology, enabling products such as antimicrobials, herbicides, diagnostic tests, corrosion retarders 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 he called the Nobel committee.
“It’s not every day that a Dane gets a Nobel Prize,” he said, adding that he was filming a tutorial video when he received the news and that he was very proud of his colleagues and team.
The third of the prizes to be unveiled in six consecutive business days, the Nobel prize for chemistry follows those for medicine and physics that were announced earlier this week.
The 2021 Chemistry Prize went to German Benjamin List and Scottish-born David MacMillan for their work in creating new tools for building molecules, helping to develop new drugs and also in areas such as plastics.
The prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were established from the bequest 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 held every year with several breaks, mainly due to the world wars, and the COVID-19 pandemic has not changed, although much of the pageantry and events have been suspended or temporarily moved online.