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What's New In Science - Chemistry and Modern Life

John Anthony - Chemistry, which deals with creating and rearranging the fundamental building blocks of all materials (living or otherwise) plays in important role in all aspects of modern life. The ability to control matter at a molecular or atomic scale has allowed chemists to enable the dramatic recent progress in the fields of medicine, energy and electronics. I will discuss how we have been able to elucidate the structure of these small building blocks, and how we can tailor them to create new disease treatments or sources of energy.

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How could you use this information to cure diseases.  Through what processes have you been able to create new disease treatments.  How would you know what elements to use for certain diseases? How does chemotherapy work?

The focus of my talk was on very specific diseases, namely viruses.  And the approach was also a very specific one - careful analysis of the components of the enzyme, and design of molecules to interact only with those parts of the disease organism.  The process simply requires an understanding of size, shape and polarity of biomolecules, but relies on an absolutely atomic-level understanding of the structure of the components of the disease organism.  Other diseases are not based on enzymes; cancer, for example, is the result of a mutation.  In the case of cancer, many chemotherapies are designed to shut down all cellular reproduction (which is why chemo patients lose their hair, among other side effects), and hope that the tumor shrinks and disappears before this has too severe an impact on the rest of the body.  Other pharmaceuticals (such as antibiotics) are designed to insert themselves into the cell walls of specific bacteria, and thus disrupt their function.  For every disease type, there is a drug design strategy.  But all of them rely on having a very good knowledge of the molecular components of the disease.

How cost efficient will new medicines be, if they are effective? Are they within a plausible budget?

If a treatment saves a life - what does “plausible  budget” mean?  A key aspect of pharmaceutical design is reduced cost synthesis, and once a drug comes off patent, the real race is to see who can make the cheapest generic.  Since a typical patent lasts 20 years, that’s a typical estimate for the cost of a drug to drop significantly. The company that did all of the (very expensive) research to design the drugs has to make back that investment within the 20 year patent.

Are chemists coming any closer to finding a cure for cancer?

Since cancer is a disease which happens from within the body, it is very difficult to treat.  And, there are many forms of cancer, each with specific types of treatment.  While the medical community has claimed to be “winning the war” against cancer since the 1950s, the biggest advances to saving lives have been due to improved screening and diagnostic tests - Magnetic Resonance Imaging, for example, is a technique developed to analyze the structure of molecules, but is now a very common technique to detect cancer at the earliest stages.  Once a tiny tumor is detected, it can be removed before it is able to spread, and this makes a very effective way to treat the disease.

Which diseases are most responsive to treatments? What kind of diseases could be cured by controlling matter? What diseases are cured by chemistry.

Pretty much any non-surgical disease treatment is based on chemistry. Whether antibiotics, analgesics (pain medicines), steroids to reduce swelling, or the latest anti-cancer treatments (tamoxifen, taxol), all of these molecules were designed, made, and modified through chemistry.  In general, the diseases that are most responsive to treatment are those where the chemist has the most accurate molecular model for the disease process.

Are molecules to create energy better than using coal?

That’s an interesting question - especially since the molecules used to create energy (for example, solar energy) come from coal.  To give you the basic outline, white silica sand is burned with coal to make raw silicon, which is then processed into the solar panels used to generate electricity. So, in essence, you can say that solar energy comes from coal!  Perhaps a better question to ask is whether using renewable ways to generate energy is better than burning coal (or natural gas or gasoline).  In general, I find that I like things that I can use over and over again more than those that I use once and throw away.

Where did the research for such concepts come from?

From a large number of very hard-working scientists, who spent many years of training in order to understand the world around us, in order to find ways to improve it.

How do you tell if these molecules treat diseases?

There are many stages.  First, a “disease model” is usually used as a screening test - this is done in a test tube.  If that works, the next step is frequently the use of animal models (mice, for example).  If promise is found in animals, there are a few more stages before the trials move to humans.  In this case, they usually give the drug to healthy people first, to make sure there are no severe side effects.  Finally, several stages of testing are done to see if it will work against the disease in humans.  This approval process is very restrictive, expensive and slow, and can take 10 years or more from the time a drug is first developed.

Do you think genetic engineering will play an important role in the future of medicine, and how can chemistry contribute?

Genetic engineering is more biology than chemistry, so it’s well outside my background.  However, many of the tools used to manipulate genes are developed by chemists.

How could you use this information as an energy source. What types of molecules create energy? Will there be a new way to create energy? Will they rival current technology (coal, gasoline)

Energy is most easily generated from molecules by burning them.  Paper, wood, coal, all made of molecules, generate plenty of power from burning.  However, once you burn something, it is gone - you can’t really re-use it.  Renewable technologies are photovoltaics (solar cells), thermoelectrics, and other such technologies.  In these cases, understanding the fundamental physics of energy capture and harvesting (whether from the sun or from heat) is critical to designing new materials to produce energy from renewable sources. For renewable sources, a much more important aspect is energy storage.  You need to have power when the sun isn’t shining!  By tuning the energy storage capability, you can design materials to release energy very quickly (as needed in vehicles), or lower amounts of energy over a very long period of time (as you’d like in a computer or cell phone).

Why is this information available now? What did you do that someone else has not?

The whole point of research is to do things that other people have not.  You have to walk down many dead-end roads before you find the path to something new.  The novel approach that my research takes is a process called “crystal engineering”, where we design molecules to adopt specific orientations in the solid state.  By doing this, we can better control many properties of materials.

How are you able to rearrange and construct molecules?  How does one rearrange the building blocks of life?

Rearranging the structure of matter involves a process known as “synthesis”.  Honestly, it’s the same process that allows people to make methamphetamine from common cold medicine - it simply a matter of developing a recipe of materials to mix together to force molecules to change structure.  And while it takes someone very skilled in the art to develop these recipes, once that is done almost anyone can follow them.

What will be the most impact full application of chemistry in medicine in the next 25 years?

Putting on my psychic prognosticator hat, I would say that designer pharmaceuticals will be the next “big thing”.  Everyone’s body is different, and chemists and biologists are now finding out how to design drugs to specifically attack diseases in the forms they adopt in specific peoples’ bodies.  This means better treatments with fewer side effects.

What risks to the greater community do these research and development actions hold? How are you addressing these concerns?

The biggest issue is the generation of chemical waste.  However, a number of plants have been constructed with specific safeguards to dispose of these wastes - mostly, by adding them to powerplants that burn them to generate electricity.  But in general, everything is done on a small scale and is well contained.  It is difficult to envision a negative impact in the development of low-cost approaches to generate electricity in a renewable fashion.

How will you engage student and young people in chemistry-related R&D?

I seldom refuse any student with a sufficient background who wants to do research in our department.  But the student / young people have to meet us at least half-way: we are happy to teach research skills, but the student needs to come into the lab with a solid background in the field of research.  Otherwise, the time spent is not productive to anyone. But more importantly, science is hard.  If you do not have a burning passion to develop a deep understanding of the world around you, to work very hard (all nights and weekends) to try and change things for the better, then science is not the career choice for you.  The desire to be a scientist has to come from within.

What recent developments in chemistry have created substances that create / improve methods for obtaining sustainable energy?

Well, some friends of mine at University of California, Santa Barbara have developed a pair of molecules that when blended generate electricity from sunlight with an efficiency of almost 10%.  This development all arose from developing a better understanding of how sunlight is captured by molecules, and what these molecules do with this energy once it is captured.

Do most disease treatments have their own unique structures?

Every disease organism has a different structure, so the molecules to combat them must also have different structures. And scientists are now finding out that the same disease can have a different structure in different people - so the drug has to be designed for both the disease and the person who has it.

What disease do you plan on treating?

We’ve done a little work on HIV, but our main focus right now is imaging molecules, to allow for much earlier detection of cancer.

When considering how the rearranging of the "building blocks of matter" could lead to new developments in energy, does the rearranging take place between atoms or within atoms or both?

We strictly work on the rearrangements of atoms within a molecular framework.  Rearrangements within the atom are the field of nuclear chemistry, which is a completely different approach to energy.

Doesn't manipulating atoms for use in disease treatment give the risk for dangerous mutations in the disease?

The amazing thing about living organisms is their susceptibility to natural selection, which is what leads to issues of drug resistance when the drug treatments are not properly followed.  So the important question to ask is whether curing a disease now is worth the risk of perhaps maybe having a harder-to-treat disease in 30 or 40 years.  What are your thoughts on this?

Where do you see carbon based electronics in the next few years as compared to traditional electronics, quantum electronics, and other recent advances like graphene?

Carbon based electronics are moving up. For example, the display manufacturer Samsung just dropped its liquid crystal display manufacturing arm, and will now focus exclusively on OLED (an organic molecule based display system).  I have not seen enough progress in quantum electronics to have much confidence in it, but the field of molecular electronics, including graphene, is an interesting one.  My research group actually has two projects underway involving graphene.

Will there ever be an all plastic cell phone?

Probably not.  Consumer demands require low cost, and right now it is too expensive to manufacture high-resolution displays and data processing chips out of flexible components. However, I hear rumors that some companies are considering building cell phones and small tablets from flexible display materials.  While this will not likely lead to a “bendable” device, it will be much more durable if you drop it!

Has a treatment for vasovagal nerve syncope been developed through this type of research?

Not likely;  that malady is currently believed to involve a mixture of complex psychological and physiological causes, and thus it would be almost impossible to develop a single molecule treatment.

How long until the flexible electronic products become mass produced and available to the public? And how expensive will those products be?

Companies such as Konarka are already selling flexible solar cell packages in Europe.  The U.S. is slow to adopt renewable technologies, so it will likely be several more years before they are available here.  The technology is relatively inexpensive, but because it is novel and unique the manufacturers still charge a lot for the solar panels.

Do you expect to revolutionize the electronics industry?

I’m more interested in revolutionizing fundamental science than in revolutionizing any industry.  A huge step forward in chemistry can have an impact on so many more fields, there is much more good to come out of it.

Is a commercial  "paintable" solar cell or tv in the foreseeable future?

Both solar cells and TVs made by inkjet printing are becoming commercial.  Inkjet is a form of painting, I guess.  As for spray painting, many research groups are working on making that into a commercial reality for solar cells.

How can the process of making these new low cost consumer goods impact other aspects of our lives, like health and the ecosystem?

Understanding the fundamental chemistry to build pharmaceuticals and electronics allows them to be manufactured with much less waste, and made in a way that is far more recyclable.

With the development in science and particularly organic synthesis what challenge has been most difficult?

I think that in the last 20 years, chemistry has come to the point that if a molecule can be imagined, it can be made.  The most difficult problem now is in figuring out which molecules need to be made!  There are billions upon billions of possibilities - which ONE is going to have the necessary properties?

In what way do you think chemistry in high school helps your studies?

High school chemistry will teach you the fundamentals.  It is the foundation upon which all other chemistry will be built.  Depending on the difficulty of the problem, you could begin tackling research projects at that point.  But by the end of your second year of college chemistry, you will have the skills necessary to make significant contributions to most areas of chemistry research.

What should we know about medicine if we work in those fields of study? What knowledge do you recommend learning that facilitates your work in research?

The key to being a good chemist is to also be a reasonably good biologist, physicist, engineer, etc.  You cannot solve big problems with a narrow focus. Be diverse in your education, as diverse as you can be, so that you will understand what the important problems are, and be able to apply your particular background to solving them.

If you make something out of aromatic molecules, will that object smell like the molecules?

If the new molecule is small enough, absolutely!  Below are the structures of vanillin and ethyl cinnamate - the smells of vanilla and cinnamon:

What new technologies are you trying to make for the general population in the future?  How much research must be done to create these new technologies?

We are working on new diagnostic tools for cancer, as well as new ways to make flexible versions of the glass used in cell phone displays.  I have 12 people working a minimum of 60 hours per week on these problems, and I figure it will take 3 - 4 years before we have any significant results.

What made you want to have the job that you have now?

I like making things.  Particularly new things, that nobody has ever made before.  It is pretty cool to hold a bottle of green crystals in your hand, knowing that nobody else in the world has ever made or seen that material before.

Have you always used aromatic molecules? Why use aromatic molecules?

I have always worked with molecules that have lots of mobile electrons (aromatics and alkynes).  Electronics is all about the flow of electrons, and in order to “flow” them, you need to have a LOT of them in the molecule.  Aromatics allow me to do that.