The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences has been awarded to Stephen Buchwald, the Camille Dreyfus Professor of Chemistry, “for the development of catalytic routes based on palladium and copper to construct carbon-nitrogen and carbon-carbon bonds,” an advance with “great impact” on the “efficient synthesis of modern pharmaceuticals and compounds for agricultural use,” in the words of the prize jury when describing the 400,000-euro award.
The chemistry enabled by Buchwald's achievements “is now being applied to the creation of drugs for numerous diseases including many forms of cancer, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation and diabetes,” the citation continues.
If a chemist’s work is largely about adding implements to a “toolbox” with which to construct new compounds, then Buchwald’s addition would be the catalysts for forming carbon-nitrogen and carbon-carbon bonds. These bonds, carbon-nitrogen in particular, are widely used today in the pharmaceutical industry. Before Buchwald’s contribution, however, it was extremely difficult to obtain them systematically due to the instability and limitations of the catalysts available.
Every chemical reaction requires a certain activation energy. Catalysts modify this activation energy by boosting or inhibiting it, thereby altering the reaction speed. The catalysts that Buchwald created in the first decade of the 21st century lower activation energy so the reaction happens much faster but also in a more stable, predictable way. They also span a broad spectrum of reactivity, making them highly effective instruments for the industrial production of molecules.
Organometallic catalysts consist of a ligand, formed by organic molecules, and a metal center, in Buchwald’s case palladium or copper. As jury secretary Avelino Corma explains, “what we now call the Buchwald ligand is electron-rich and air-stable, yielding a highly active organometallic catalyst with a wide spectrum of reactivity. Its stability, moreover, facilitates production at an industrial scale.”
Buchwald, delighted with the news of the award, stated that “it is vastly encouraging to see the products, pharmaceuticals especially,” that have been manufactured thanks to his research. He added: “It would be thrilling to know that someone has used our work to make a drug that will help many people.”