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.