STOCKHOLM – Three U.S.-based scientists won this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for developing powerful computer models that researchers use to understand complex chemical interactions and create new drugs.
Research in the 1970s by Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel has led to programs that unveil chemical processes such as how exhaust fumes are purified or how photosynthesis takes place in green leaves, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. That kind of knowledge makes it possible to find the best design for things like new drugs, solar cells or catalytic converters for cars.
The strength of the winning work is that it can be used to study all kinds of chemistry, the academy said.
“This year’s prize is about taking the chemical experiment to cyberspace,” said Staffan Normark, the academy’s secretary.
All three scientists became U.S. citizens. Karplus came to the U.S. with his family as Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938. The 83-year-old U.S. and Austrian citizen splits his time between the University of Strasbourg, France, and Harvard University.
Levitt, 66, was born in South Africa and is a British, U.S., and Israeli citizen. He is a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Warshel, 72, was born in Israel and is a U.S. and Israeli citizen affiliated with the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Levitt told the Associated Press the award recognized him for work he had done when he was 20, before he even had his PhD.
“It was just me being in the right place at the right time and maybe having a few good ideas,” he said, speaking by telephone from his home in Stanford, Calif.
Jeremy Berg, a professor of computational and systems biology at the University of Pittsburgh, said the winning work gives scientists a way to understand complicated reactions that involve thousands to millions of atoms.
“There are thousands of laboratories around the world using these methods, both for basic biochemistry and for things like drug design,” said Berg.
Many drug companies use computer simulations to screen substances for their potential as medicines, which lets them focus their chemistry lab work on those that look promising, he said.
Marinda Li Wu, president of the American Chemical Society, was equally enthusiastic about the award.
“I think it’s fabulous,” she said in a telephone interview. ‘’They’re talking about the partnering of theoreticians with experimentalists, and how this has led to greater understanding.”