Japan gets second Nobel for the year

STOCKHOLM — Koichi Tanaka of Shimadzu Corp. and two others have won the 2002 Nobel Prize in chemistry, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Wednesday.

Tanaka, 43, shared the prize with John Fenn of the United States and Kurt Wuethrich of Switzerland for research that enabled scientists to identify proteins and understand how they function in cells, which revolutionized the development of new medicines and has shown promise of a faster manner of detecting cancer, according to the academy.

Tanaka and Fenn, 85, of the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, will share half of the 10 million kronor ($1 million) prize.

Wuethrich, 64, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., will get the other half.

Tanaka, chief of the Life Science Laboratory at Shimadzu, a Kyoto-based precision machinery maker, won the prize just one day after Masatoshi Koshiba, a professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo, received the Nobel Prize in physics for his contribution to astrophysics.

It is the first time two Japanese have won Nobel prizes in the same year. Tanaka is the 12th Japanese to win a Nobel and the first Japanese corporate researcher to win the prestigious prize.

Fenn and Tanaka made their breakthroughs in the late 1980s, transforming an analysis technique called mass spectrometry, which enables scientists to rapidly identify a substance by analyzing its mass. It is used, for example, in tests for doping and illegal drugs.

Wuethrich was honored for improving a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance. This technique allows scientists to develop three-dimensional images of molecules in a solution, the natural environment of a protein in a cell.

The laureates’ research in two methods favored by chemists has “meant a revolutionary breakthrough, making chemical biology into the ‘big science of our time,’ ” the academy said in its citation.

Using the research, chemists can now quickly and reliably identify proteins and can produce three-dimensional images of protein molecules in solutions, leading to a better understanding of how proteins function in cells, the academy said.

The research has led to new drugs and promising applications in the early diagnosis of ovarian, breast and prostate cancer and malaria.

“All therapeutic strategies today are based on targeting proteins,” Bengt Norden, the chairman of the awards committee, said. Methods developed by the laureates “will help us design drug molecules that bind to both proteins and nucleic acids.”

The prize for Tanaka apparently came as a surprise to Japan’s academic circles. Hideki Shirakawa, a professor emeritus at Tsukuba University who won the same prize in 2000, said he had not heard Tanaka’s name.

Even Tanaka himself appears to have been unprepared.

“I still can’t believe it,” a bewildered Tanaka told a hastily prepared news conference. “It’s a big surprise to me.”

Tanaka, a native of Toyama on the Sea of Japan coast and a graduate of Tohoku University in Sendai, is the second-youngest Japanese to receive the prize, after the late physicist Hideki Yukawa, who won in 1949 at the age of 42. He is the first Japanese born after World War II to receive a Nobel.

In 1987, Tanaka developed a method called soft laser desorption that enables the ionization of protein molecules.

“Tanaka was the first to demonstrate the applicability of laser technology to biological macromolecules,” according to the academy.

Shimadzu, Tanaka’s employer, boasts high technological prowess. It also produces medical equipment and is now focusing its resources on such growth sectors as bio- and information technology.

Tanaka is chief of the Life Science Laboratory, under the life science business unit of Shimadzu’s analytical and measuring instruments division.

Other Nobel science awards were to be announced later Wednesday along with the announcement of the economics prize, the only one not established in the will of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.

The winner of the Nobel Prize in literature will be named on Thursday in Stockholm, and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in Oslo.

The prizes for medicine and physics were announced earlier this week.