Chemical Society's Highest Award Goes To Ronald Breslow

April 30, 1998

Ronald Breslow, Ph.D., of Columbia University has just been chosen to receive the American Chemical Society's 1999 Priestley Medal for his efforts to develop cancer-fighting drugs and other useful chemicals as well as for his service in making the science more accessible to the public. The gold medal will be presented to him at the Washington-based Society's national meeting next spring.

"I think it's nice to aim to understand the chemistry of life. But more than that, I want to learn from nature -- to use that chemistry to make molecules that are better," said Breslow, an organic chemist. "It's a terrific honor to be selected for this award."

The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific organization, has no higher honor than the Priestley Medal. The award is named for Joseph Priestley, who reported the discovery of oxygen in 1774, and its first recipient, in 1923, was Ira Remsen, the chemist credited with bringing laboratory research to the American university.

"What I do is make new molecules with interesting properties," particularly in medicine, summarized New York-based Breslow.

For example, he said, his research group has a novel approach to ridding the body of cancer: don't kill the cancer cells, but make them normal.

"It's very difficult to make a selective toxic compound -- that is, a chemotherapy drug that kills cancer cells without killing normal cells," he said. This is true largely because cancer comes not from foreign cells, "but from normal ones that are misbehaving. They've lost their balance, and we try to restore it."

Two such chemotherapy agents are promising so far in animal trials with the National Cancer Institute.

Every kind of tissue needs to make enough new cells to replace old ones or to grow. Thus the body keeps an inventory of immature "templates" called stem cells. These juveniles can't function in digestion or repair, but they can quickly grow -- differentiate -- into various adults that can. In turn, adult cells work but don't multiply rapidly.

Cancer cells, simply put, are cells that fail to differentiate. "They just go around and around the cell cycle, and keep multiplying," explained Breslow. His chemotherapy candidates turn on the chemical signal that directs the cells' DNA toward differentiation instead of reproduction. Once the cancer cells differentiate, they become normal adults.

In another area of research, Breslow has just filed a patent on a more efficient way to make steroids like hydrocortisone, which treats arthritis pain, swelling, and other ailments.

Humans and other organisms make corticosteroids by adding oxygen atoms to particular spots on steroid molecules. Proteins called enzymes lock on to the steroid molecules and maneuver the oxygen into precise position -- an efficient but complicated method that is nearly impossible to reproduce in the laboratory.

Instead, manufacturers must laboriously use molds and other microorganisms as miniature factories, and then harvest the corticosteroids.

"Our molecule mimics the function, but not the structure, of enzyme proteins," said Breslow. Where proteins are difficult to make and sensitive to heat or other reactions, the chemist's "artificial enzyme" is simple, economical, and durable.

The Priestley Medal also recognizes service to the field of chemistry itself. As president of the American Chemical Society in 1996, Breslow said he emphasized education, federal science policy, and public awareness.

He pointed out he has written a no-jargon book [Chemistry Today and Tomorrow] to "explain what chemists have done and intend to do," for example. He also spurred a movement for all scientific societies to join as a single lobby for Congress.

"There are 130 organizations now that are part of a massive effort to make sure science gets sufficient funding," he said. "We can fight over how it gets divided up later."

Breslow admitted he was a chemistry-set kid. "I had a laboratory in the basement of our house, right near the air duct next to our furnace," he said. "My father was a physician, and I remember his patients would come streaming out of his office upstairs sometimes when I made something that really smelled bad. But he didn't mind."

"I thought the whole thing was magic," he remembered. "You'd mix two things and get something entirely different."

A nonprofit organization with a membership of more than 155,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals, 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.

American Chemical Society

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