Harvard chemist wins national award for lifetime contributions to science, medicine

03/19/04

Elias J. Corey, Ph.D., of Cambridge, Mass., will be honored March 30 by the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, for decades of achievement, such as developing simple, logic-based rules and strategies to assemble complex compounds for medicines and a host of other products. He will receive the 2004 Priestley Medal, the Society's highest honor, at its national meeting in Anaheim, Calif.

"The center of gravity for all my work has been to put together complicated molecules somewhat as in the way an architect designs a building or an electronic engineer designs a computer — rationally and logically," said Corey, an organic synthetic chemist at Harvard University since 1959.

Indeed, many aspects of Corey's field share underpinnings with architecture, including artistic and technical challenges in both design and execution. And like physical structures, the products of synthetic chemists are ubiquitous in modern society: pharmaceuticals, plastics, fibers and high-tech materials from supercomputers to bulletproof armor to paint.

Corey and his research team have made thousands of complex chemical structures, often compounds found in nature and recreated in the laboratory for study as possible drugs to treat disease. He is particularly noted for his practical syntheses of hormone-like compounds of the body's immune system, called prostaglandins and leukotrienes, and for pharmaceuticals ultimately based on his research.

"At one point there were only milligram-amounts [of prostaglandins and leukotrienes] in the world supply," said Corey. "Now there are medicines on the market based on research in this field with sales in excess of $10 billion per year." Among them are the 'super aspirins' such as Celebrex® (celecoxib) to treat arthritis, Singulair® (montelucast sodium) for asthma and Xalatan® (latanoprost), used in the treatment of glaucoma.

Corey's approach of mentally dissecting complex molecules into simple building blocks, and the step-by-step process to knit them back together, is an idea he traces to childhood. "When I was six or seven years old, I was so amazed by things like radio and airplanes," he remembered. "I wanted to know how they worked, to reproduce them on my own, to have all that knowledge."

As a chemist in the 1960s, however, "leaders in the field thought what I was doing was pie-in-the-sky, that it was impossible to develop logical processes like the algorithms in math to solve general problems in synthesis," he said. Three decades later, in 1990, his work earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and retrosynthetic analysis is now the standard in academic and commercial research.

A recent and ongoing project is developing tiny mimics of complex enzymes, the body's finely tuned construction workers. "I call them molecular robots because they're capable of putting molecules together into complicated structures just like robots building a car or a computer, with the right three-dimensional orientation," he said. "It can revolutionize our ability to construct chemical structures efficiently and simply."

Such progress in the field leads Corey to believe that quality health care, together with basic education, is possible around the world by century's end — given a global effort by scientists, economists, educators, governments and international organizations.

"In the long run, it's one of the best ways to fight terrorism," he asserted. "When you have a well-educated, healthy population, people don't want to do bad things. Yes, it's ivory tower, but I honestly think it can happen."

The Priestley award and its gold medallion are named for Joseph Priestley, who reported the discovery of oxygen in 1774. The American Chemical Society has recognized groundbreaking chemists with the annual award since 1923, when it conveyed the first Priestley Medal to Ira Remsen, the chemist credited with bringing laboratory research to the American university.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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