Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 winners from a patent perspective

Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 winners from a patent perspective

As patent attorneys, it’s easy to get caught up in the legal side of inventions and scientific discoveries. At heart though, many of us joined this profession because of our passion for science - we love to learn about the biggest breakthroughs and discoveries, whether we are working on a patent for them or not.
I wrote about the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year (here and here) because of my ongoing interest in developments in the field of Chemistry. The winners of the 2021 Prize were announced on 6 October 2021 – I’m a little late writing about it this year because I’ve only just returned from a wonderful 11 months of maternity leave but I wanted to comment on this because of how interesting the winning technology is.
 In this article, I explore:

  • The winning technology;

  • Commercial use of the winning technology; and

  • The environmental impact of the winning technology.


The winning technology

The winners of the 2021 Chemistry Nobel Prize were announced as Benjamin List and David MacMillan for their development of “a precise new tool for molecular construction: organocatalysis”.
Catalysts are extremely important in many industrial chemical processes because they increase the rate of a chemical reaction without undergoing any permanent chemical change themselves. Prior to this development, known catalysts generally fell into two categories: metals and enzymes. List and MacMillan developed organocatalysis independently of each other in 2000 and were therefore each awarded half of the Nobel Prize.
From a patent perspective, it is worth noting that the date that an invention is derived is not the crucial factor when assessing its novelty and inventiveness. Rather, the priority (or filing) date of a patent or patent application directed to that invention is what matters. In a situation such as this where an invention is derived at the same time by different parties, the inventor who is first to file an application puts themselves in the best position in terms of patent protection. However, there is a risk of filing patent applications too early, namely in cases where there is not yet sufficient information to properly explain how to work an invention or show what advantages it provides with appropriate data.

Commercial use

Organic catalysts can be used to drive a wide array of chemical reactions and are particularly ‘handy’ when it comes to driving asymmetric catalysis (terrible chirality joke intended). Chiral molecules exist as two stereoisomers that are mirror images of each other.
Stereoisomers can have significantly different properties. As highlighted in this article, a notable example of this is the drug thalidomide, which was approved for treating conditions such as morning sickness in the 1950s, but was withdrawn when it was found that one stereoisomer damaged developing foetuses. Organocatalysts are therefore very useful tools for commercial processes where it is important to produce a specific stereoisomer.

Environmental Impact

Organic catalysts are typically more environmentally friendly and are cheaper to produce than metal and enzyme catalysts. As an example, List found that even the simple amino acid proline (which only contains carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen) was an excellent catalyst.
With climate change being one of the biggest global challenges that we currently face, it is more important now than ever to focus on commercial solutions that are eco-friendly as well as technically effective.
For more information or advice, please contact Jessica Smart or your usual Kilburn & Strode advisor.

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