K. Barry Sharpless is Awarded the 101st Nobel Prize in Chemistry

By Jason Socrates bardi

K. Barry Sharpless, Ph.D., W.M. Keck Professor of Chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), and member of The Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology, has been awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Awarded annually by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, economics, and peace, the prize recognizes individuals who, as stipulated in Alfred Nobel's will, "have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." The prize carries a cash award of about a million dollars.

Sharpless was awarded this year's prize in chemistry along with William S. Knowles, formerly of Monsanto, and Ryoji Noyori of Nagoya University in Japan for "the development of catalytic asymmetric synthesis."

"We are obviously delighted that Dr. Sharpless has received this recognition," says TSRI President Richard Lerner. "In my mind, it was inevitable that he would be awarded the Nobel Prize—the extent and significance of his work are so far reaching. [Dr. Sharpless] has been recognized for his prodigious work by the scientific community for many years and has been acknowledged by the philanthropic community, most notably Mr. Sam Skaggs, whose contributions have enabled Dr. Sharpless to achieve many research breakthroughs."

According to the prize committee, Knowles and Noyori shared half the prize "for their work on chirally catalyzed hydrogenation reactions." The other half of this year's award recognized Sharpless "for his work on chirally catalyzed oxidation reactions."

Sharpless contributed innovations to the development of broadly useful and commercially viable catalytic oxidation chemistry for the selective production of bioactive chiral molecules with the proper right or left "handedness."

Chirality, or handedness, is the structural characteristic of a molecule that makes it impossible to superimpose it on its mirror image. Proteins, DNA, and carbohydrates are all chiral molecules: without the correct handedness, they will not function as the basic molecules of life. Many drugs must also be of correct chirality; indeed, in some cases, the molecules with the wrong chirality can be toxic.

Sharpless's methods allow for the manufacture of safer and more effective antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, heart medicines, and agricultural chemicals.

In 1980, Sharpless reported a breakthrough in synthesizing chiral molecules—the highly enantioselective epoxidation of allylic alcohols catalyzed by a titanium complex which is now used routinely. More recently, Sharpless developed another useful method—the asymmetric dihydroxylation of alkenes catalyzed by an osmium complex.

In fact, these process, named the "Sharpless Astmmetric Epoxidation, Dihydroxylation, and Aminohydroxylation" have revolutionized organic chemistry by transforming asymmetric synthesis from nearly impossible to routine.

Sharpless received his B.A. from Dartmouth College in 1963 and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1968. In 1970, following postdoctoral studies at Stanford and Harvard Universities, he joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After three years at Stanford in the late 1970s, he returned to MIT as Arthur C. Cope Professor of Chemistry. He joined TSRI's faculty in 1991. Sharpless was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1985.

Other significant honors include the Tetrahedron Prize, the American Chemical Society's Award for Creative Work in Organic Synthesis and the Arthur C. Cope Award; the Prelog Medal (Switzerland); the Janssen Prize (Belgium); the Scheele Medal (Sweden); the King Faisal International Prize for Science (Saudi Arabia); the Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society; the Harvey Prize of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology; the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Science; and most recently, the Wolf Prize in Chemistry and the Benjamin Franklin Medal. Also, he was listed among the "Top 75 Contributors to the Chemical Enterprise," in the 75 years since the founding of Chemical & Engineering News.

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K. Barry Sharpless is W.M. Keck Professor of Chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), and member of The Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology.