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Nobel prize goes to molecule marker.

Nobel Prize goes to molecule maker

Elias J. Corey of Harvard University once described synthetic chemists as people who can get "something valuable from almost nothing" by transforming cheap materials "into new materials or substances of relatively great, or even lifesaving, value."

Last week, Corey was honored for just that accomplishment. In awarding him the 1990 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences also cited his pivotal role in developing "the theory and methodology of organic synthesis."

Like many other organic chemists, Corey has focused on inventing ways of making laboratory duplicates and relatives of naturally occurring chemicals with useful properties. Rather than taking a trial-and-error approach based largely on intuition, he and his co-workers developed a system of logical principles -- called retrosynthetic analysis -- to help in the rational planning of chemical syntheses. Working backwards from a blueprint of the entire target compound, the researchers determine a sequence of fragmentations, which leads them to known ingredients that they then can assemble into the target structure.

Today, says corey, "no modern syntheses are designed in any other way."

One of his lab's early successes was the synthesis of eicosanoids -- a family of cell-made fatty acids, including prostaglandins, that have diverse effects on mamamalian tissues and organs.

"We carried out the first synthesis of prostaglandins in the mid-1960s," Corey says. At the time, only milligram quantities were available, extracted from the prostate glands of sheep and humans. "Our synthesis was scaled up to make kilogram quantities, enough to supply the world's research and clinical people," he told SCIENCE NEWS. Heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis are among the various ailments now treated with lab-made eicosanoids.

Since 1959, Corey and his many graduate students have synthesized about 100 natural chemicals. One current project, he says, focuses on synthesizing glycinoeclepin, a bioregulator made by some bean plants after about 40 chemical steps. Among other effects, the compound triggers nearby eggs of bean-eating worms to hatch.

Corey's lab also designs small, reusable, enzyme-like chemicals known as chemzymes (SN: 6/24/89, p.388), which can accelerate some of industry's most-used chemical reactions while producing only minimal amounts of the isomeric byproducts that usually decrease the efficiency and raise the cost of making synthetic chemicals.
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Title Annotation:Elias J. Corey wins chemistry prize
Author:Amato, Ivan
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 27, 1990
Words:371
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