Sharpless '63 wins Nobel

by Staff and wire reports | 10/11/01 5:00am

K. Barry Sharpless '63 was named a co-winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in developing new molecular synthesis techniques critical to the creation of new drugs.

Sharpless will receive half of the $943,000 prize, with William S. Knowles of St. Louis and Ryoji Noyori of Nagoya University in Japan sharing the remaining half.

The research, conducted over 20 years ago, focused on chiral molecules. These molecules appear in two forms that mirror each other, like a left and right hand. Often, the "right-handed" version of a molecule has helpful medical qualities while the "left-handed" version is harmful.

Sharpless and his co-winners all developed chemical catalysts that made it possible to synthesize only the useful form of a molecule. This allows pharmaceutical companies to manufacture a drug that is more potent and has fewer side effects.

At a news conference, Sharpless said that he was "discombobulated" by the news that he is now a Nobel laureate.

"I don't have anything to do with the money," he said when asked what his plans were for the cash award.

Currently the W. M. Keck Professor of Chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., Sharpless graduated from Dartmouth in 1963 and earned his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1968.

In the past, Sharpless has credited his beginnings in organic chemistry to the College's New Hampshire Professor of Chemistry, Thomas Spencer.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which bestows the chemistry prizes, said that Sharpless' research has been called "the most important discovery in the field of synthesis during the past few decades" by many scientists.

Science magazine called the "Sharpless Asymmetric Epoxidation" technique "the most innovative reaction introduced in organic chemistry in modern times."

Officially, Sharpless was honored for "his work on chirally catalysed oxidation reactions," while Knowles and Noyori received the prize for "their work on chirally catalysed hydrogenation reactions."