Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry says he is proud to help produce greener medicines; read interview

David MacMillan, a professor at Princeton University, was awarded this Wednesday (6) with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 for his work in developing a new tool that revolutionized the synthesis of molecules, known as organocatalysis, a production methodology that even enables greener chemistry.

MacMillan was awarded together with Benjamin List, from the Max-Planck Institute, in Germany, who he also developed research related to organocatalysis.

From New Jersey, where he works and lives, the Scot with British-American nationality, granted an interview to the AFP a few hours after the announcement.

Why is organocatalysis so different and important compared to previous catalysts, such as metals and enzymes?

Chemical reactions produce everything around us: medicines, materials, etc. And these reactions often require “catalysis”.

To make the catalysis, the world used many things that were toxic or caused harm to the environment.

There is 23 years ago, we thought, “What would happen if you could use the same types of molecules you find in your body?” In other words, organic molecules because we know they are right in the environment and happy to be in our atmosphere.

Can you remember a specific eureka moment?

He was standing in front of a blackboard with a student, showing him a reaction. I suddenly had this idea of ​​how we could take all of this in a very different way, using these organic molecules. This was the first eureka moment.

The second was when another student actually tried the reaction and it worked. It was a fantastic feeling, just as I feel now.

When we published it, it spread wildly and quickly entered the community. People started to adopt it very quickly, which was also very exciting.

Why were organic molecules disregarded as tools for building molecules in the past?


It’s a great question. I think it’s because when we first tried using metals, it worked. And like many things in life, when something works, we go in that direction.

The applications of your discovery abound, but are there any you’re most proud of?

People use it to manufacture these drugs on a very, very large scale because the world is a very big place.

Being able to use these catalysts to do this and, at the same time, being safe and good for the environment is part of what I’m certainly most proud of.

Today, you are a leader in “photoredox catalysis,” which uses light to break and rejoin atomic bonds, one electron at a time. How do you feel about that?


This work is now also widely used by people who manufacture medicines and other materials.

We’re done to start taking this to biology and we believe that we can start to have new knowledge that will be really important to develop new drugs.

How far does your love for chemistry go?

When I was a student at the University of Glasgow and for the first time I made a molecule, and the professor I worked with told me that nobody in the world I had made this molecule before.

I was very young. He barely knew what he was doing and had already made a molecule. And I think I’m lucky to be able to work with young people every day who have at least that level of enthusiasm.

Do you know Benjamin List, Nobel co-winner with you?


We published our articles separately at approximately the same time, but we’ve known each other forever.

He was the person who texted me at 5am30 this morning to tell me about the award and I actually thought it was a joke. I told him, “It’s just a joke, people are joking” and went back to sleep.

About 20 minutes later, my phone began to play. I went to see the cover of The New York Times and there was my picture.

I’m incredibly happy, but at the same time I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on. Everything is a whirlwind.

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