Purdue professor presented with Nobel Prize in chemistry

December 10, 2010

Richard Heck, from left, Purdue's Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki take part in Friday's (Dec. 10) Nobel Prize award ceremony. Image courtesty of Nobel Media AB.

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University's Ei-ichi Negishi on Friday (Dec. 10) was presented with the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing chemical reactions that allow for easy and efficient synthesis of complex organic compounds that are used in everything from pharmaceuticals to electronics.

Negishi, the Herbert C. Brown Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, shares the prize with Richard Heck, an emeritus professor of the University of Delaware in Newark, and Akira Suzuki, an emeritus professor of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.

King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden presented Negishi and other laureates with Nobel medals and diplomas during a ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall.

Purdue President France A. Córdova attended the ceremony with first gentleman Christian J. Foster and Jeffrey Roberts, the Frederick L. Hovde Dean of the College of Science.

"The award of the Nobel Prize to Dr. Negishi is a great honor for him and for Purdue, and is especially meaningful to all the students and faculty who have learned from him or worked with him," Córdova said. "During this, the Nobel Prize week in Stockholm, Ei-ichi has further distinguished himself before a global audience as an articulate and optimistic spokesperson for science; he has voiced the hope that scientific discoveries can address some of the world's greatest challenges, like food production, safety and security, as well as cheaper energy production. It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to be a witness to a remarkable event that honors a great Purdue scientist."

Negishi said the award he shares with Heck and Suzuki represents a lifetime of work and that he hopes others will build on these discoveries to help people throughout the world.

Purdue's Nobel Prize winner Ei-ichi Negishi signs an autograph after presenting his Nobel lecture in chemistry. (Purdue University photo/Mikael Wallerstedt)

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"Receiving a Nobel Prize is the ultimate recognition for a lifetime spent questioning, exploring, experimenting; passing through the valleys of anguish to climb the mountains of success," he said. "The final reward for any researcher is to see his or her lifetime of work extend beyond academia and laboratories, into the mainstream of our global society where it can breathe hope into the world."

In addition to drugs that include the painkiller naproxen and the cancer treatment taxol, the Negishi reaction has been used to produce fluorescent marking that has been essential for DNA sequencing and in creating materials for thin LED displays.

The Nobel Prize ceremony and Negishi's Nobel Lecture, "Magical Power of Transition Metals: Past, Present and Future," which he delivered Wednesday (Dec. 8), can be viewed online at http://www.nobelprize.org

Negishi won the prize for his contributions to the development of metal-based reactions called palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling. It is estimated that more than 25 percent of all chemical production in the pharmaceutical industry relies on these reactions.

In order to create complex chemicals, chemists need to be able to join carbon atoms together. However, carbon atoms do not easily react with one another. In palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling, a palladium atom brings carbon atoms together and acts as a catalyst to kick-start a chemical reaction that bonds the carbon atoms. The reaction can be applied to form carbon-carbon bonds at specific locations to create a skeleton for very complex organic molecules.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, has supported Negishi's work since 1979. NIGMS director Jeremy M. Berg said carbon-carbon bonds are the foundation of organic structures.

"Life on Earth is based on carbon-carbon bonds as a house is built on a frame," Berg said. "You could think of Dr. Negishi's work as a highly accurate and powerful nail gun - it's a new tool to build organic molecules precisely and efficiently."

Early methods to bind carbon atoms together were based upon various techniques for making carbon more reactive. Such methods worked when creating simple molecules, but when synthesizing more complex molecules, chemists ended up with too many unwanted byproducts. Palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling solved that problem and provided chemists with a more precise and efficient tool.

Negishi developed palladium-catalyzed reactions that use a number of different metals and allow for a wide range of complex organic molecules to be synthesized efficiently and selectively for use in fields ranging from medicine to materials development.

Negishi likened the innovation to playing with LEGOs, altering the building blocks of molecules and using transition metals as catalysts to promote the reactions needed for the synthesis. He found catalysts and created reactions that allow complex organic compounds to, in effect, snap together with other compounds to more economically and efficiently build desired materials.

Joseph Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society and Purdue's William E. Moore Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, said Negishi's work has been key to advancing the field.

"These reactions have greatly reduced the number of steps required to synthesize important molecules and have improved the quality of synthesis by almost eliminating unwanted byproducts," Francisco said. "The bonds happen very easily and cleanly, connecting atoms and various groups to make new compounds. This is truly fundamental work."

The Nobel Prize was bestowed primarily on the strength of 10 seminal papers published from 1976-78, said Negishi, who came to Purdue in 1966 as a postdoctoral researcher under the late Herbert C. Brown, who won the Nobel Prize in 1979.

Negishi and co-recipient Suzuki both studied under Brown.

Negishi grew up in Japan and received a bachelor's degree in organic chemistry from the University of Tokyo in 1958. He moved to the United States in 1960 to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania as a Fulbright-Smith-Mundt scholar, earning a doctorate in organic chemistry in 1963. Negishi went to Syracuse University in 1972, where he was an assistant professor and then an associate professor before returning to Purdue in 1979.

He was appointed the H.C. Brown Distinguished Professor of Chemistry in 1999 and has won various awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the A.R. Day Award, a 1996 Chemical Society of Japan Award, the 1998 American Chemical Society Organometallic Chemistry Award, a 1998 Humboldt Senior Researcher Award and the 2010 American Chemical Society Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry. He also was given the 2010 Order of Culture, Japan's highest distinction, and named as a Person of Cultural Merit. Negishi has authored more than 400 publications including two books, one of which is the Handbook of Organopalladium Chemistry for Organic Synthesis. Collectively, these publications have been cited more than 20,000 times.

Every year since 1901 the Nobel Prize has been awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. The Nobel Prize is an international award administered by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1968 Sveriges Riksbank established The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize. Each prize consists of a medal, personal diploma and a cash award.

Including Negishi, Suzuki and Heck, 102 Nobel Prizes in chemistry have been awarded to 159 individuals.

Media contact: Elizabeth K. Gardner, 765-494-2081, ekgardner@purdue.edu 

Related websites:

Negishi photo gallery: http://purdue.photoshelter.com/gallery/Negishi-in-Stockholm/G0000VP8ZFEY85pc

Nobel Prize: http://www.nobelprize.org

Negishi's Nobel lecture: http://nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1424

Nobel media interview with Negishi, Heck and Suzuki: http://nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1409

Journal and Courier reports from Stockholm: http://www.jconline.com/section/nobel/