Charlottesville researcher receives national award

March 21, 2000

Techniques yield information that could lead to cancer vaccines

Chemist Donald F. Hunt of Charlottesville, Va., will be honored on March 28 by the world's largest scientific society for developing techniques whose uses include identifying disease markers on unhealthy cells -- isolating a single protein among a cell's thousands. He will receive the Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry from the American Chemical Society at its national meeting in San Francisco.

"Each kind of cell in the body expresses about 20,000 different proteins," began Hunt, a professor of chemistry and pathology at the University of Virginia. "What I can do is take cells, break them open and tell what kind of proteins they have."

One goal is to determine which of the 10,000 molecules bristling on a cell's surface trigger the immune system to recognize disease ‹ information that can help researchers develop vaccines against cancer. "Every cell takes a little piece of the proteins it's making and puts them on its surface," Hunt explained. "The immune system checks through these amino acid chains. If it recognizes them as fragments of cancer proteins, for example, it attacks the cell."

Hunt's team of researchers was the first to sift through and identify fragments that stimulate the immune system to attack and kill melanoma, or skin cancer. This entailed determining the sequence of amino acids, tracing them back to their original cell proteins, and studying how they are transported to the surface.

Hunt developed these techniques with a mass spectrometer, which identifies molecules by their electrical charge and mass. The instrument is also used to test Olympic athletes for drugs, analyze forensic evidence and determine the ages of rocks.

Two childhood companions played a large role in Hunt's decision to become a chemist. "One boy's father used to gave us math puzzles to keep us quiet," he remembered. "That led us to his Scientific Americans, looking for more math puzzles." When an older brother asked the three what they wanted to be, one said "mathematician," the other said "physicist" and Hunt said "chemist." He continued, "And you know, we each became what we said that day."

A nonprofit organization with a membership of 161,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society www.acs.org publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.
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American Chemical Society

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