NIGMS Grantee K. Barry Sharpless Wins Nobel Prize for Advances in Mirror-Image Chemistry

NIGMS Grantee K. Barry Sharpless Wins Nobel Prize for Advances in Mirror-Image Chemistry
Release Date:
Alison Davis, NIGMS

Dr. K. Barry Sharpless, a long-time grantee of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health, was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry today for his discovery of "chiral catalysts"--molecules that enable researchers to selectively control chemical reactions. Over the past 26 years, NIGMS has provided more than $7 million in research grant support to Dr. Sharpless.

"Dr. Sharpless' creativity has helped the entire field of chemistry produce extremely useful molecules, including many different therapeutics, that continue to improve the health and enhance the lives of all Americans," said Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, acting director of NIH. "This year's Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine both beautifully underscore the value of basic biological research in yielding vital medical advances."

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm announced the chemistry prize winners this morning. Dr. Sharpless, W.M. Keck Professor of Chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, received half of this year's chemistry award for his work on "chirally catalyzed oxidation reactions." Sharing the other half of the prize for their work on "chirally catalyzed hydrogenation reactions," are Dr. William S. Knowles of St. Louis, Missouri (formerly of the Monsanto Company) and Dr. Ryoji Noyori of Nagoya University, Chikusa, Nagoya, Japan.

Nearly all small molecules--either natural or synthetic--come in two, "mirror-image" forms, much like a pair of gloves. When chemical reactions occur in living systems, only the "correct" form is made. In contrast, laboratory reactions nearly always produce a potful of both left and right "hands" of a molecule. The active part of most medicines consists of a single hand of a molecule. A mixture that includes the "wrong" hand of a molecule can be ineffective or even harmful to the body.

After more than a decade of trying, in 1980 Dr. Sharpless figured out how to force a chemical reaction to go one-handed. The winning combination turned out to be a mixture of two inexpensive commercial chemicals: a relatively simple titanium compound and either the right or left hand of a chemical called "tartrate."

"The chemical tools developed by Dr. Sharpless took the random part out of a coin toss so that the quarter always comes up heads," said Dr. Marvin Cassman, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which has funded Dr. Sharpless' research since 1975. "Dr. Sharpless' ingenuity has streamlined the production of a wide array of important chemicals, including certain antibiotics, heart medicines, and antidepressants."

In 1990, NIGMS gave Dr. Sharpless a MERIT award, which provides investigators who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity with long-term, stable support to foster their continued research contributions.

Early in his career, Dr. Sharpless also received fellowship support from what is now the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

NIGMS funds research and research training in the basic biomedical sciences, including biorelated chemistry. This support enables scientists at universities, medical schools, and research institutions throughout the country to expand knowledge about the fundamental life processes that underlie human health and disease. NIGMS has supported 22 of the 29 Nobel laureates in chemistry funded or employed by NIH since 1954.


For comments on Dr. Sharpless' NIGMS-supported research, call the NIGMS Office of Communications and Public Liaison at (301) 496-7301 to arrange an interview with NIGMS director Dr. Marvin Cassman.