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Sharpless, former MIT professor, wins Nobel in chemistry

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- K. Barry Sharpless, an MIT chemistry professor for 17 years until he joined Scripps Research Institute in 1990, was chosen October 10 to share the 2001 Nobel Prize in chemistry with two other researchers.

Sharpless, 60, received a Ph.D. degree in 1968 from Stanford University. Since 1990, he has been W. M. Keck Professor of Chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute.

After starting his career at MIT as an assistant professor, Sharpless moved back to Stanford in 1977. Although he had started his quest for a practical catalyst for asymmetric epoxidation while at MIT, after 10 years of effort, the key breakthrough took place in January 1980 at Stanford.

Sharpless decided that he wanted to return to MIT to pursue this important discovery. He and his lab moved back to MIT that summer. It was at MIT that he fully developed the process now known as the Sharpless Asymmetic Epoxidation and it was also here that he and his coworkers discovered the Sharpless Asymmetric Dihydroxylation. Sharpless left MIT in 1990 to join the Scripps Research Institute.

"Barry's friends and former colleagues here at MIT are thrilled that his important contributions to chemistry have been recognized with this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry," said Rick L. Danheiser, A. C. Cope Professor and associate department head in chemistry. "Most of the work for which the prize was awarded was carried out here at MIT, where Barry was a valued colleague and a wonderful teacher and mentor for a great many students over the years."


According to the Nobel press materials, many molecules appear in two forms that mirror each other, just as our hands mirror each other. Such molecules are called chiral.

In nature one of these forms is often dominant. In our cells one of these mirror images of a molecule fits like a glove, in contrast to the other one which may even be harmful.

Pharmaceutical products often consist of chiral molecules, and the difference between the two forms can be a matter of life and death -- as was the case in the thalidomide disaster in the 1960s. That is why it is vital to be able to produce the two chiral forms separately.

This year's Nobel laureates in chemistry have developed molecules that can catalyze important reactions so that only one of the two mirror image forms is produced. The catalyst molecule, which itself is chiral, speeds up the reaction without being consumed. Just one of these molecules can produce millions of molecules of the desired mirror image form.

Knowles's research led to an industrial process for the production of L-DOPA, used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease. Noyori has led the further development of this process to today's general chiral catalysts for hydrogenation.

Sharpless is awarded half of the prize for developing chiral catalysts for oxidation reactions.

The laureates have opened up a new field of research in which it is possible to synthesize molecules and material with new properties. The results of their basic research are being used in industrial syntheses of pharmaceutical products such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and heart medicines.

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