"What really gets me excited is chemical reactions designing them, then using them to make interesting compounds, especially those with useful biological properties," said Rawal, an organic chemist at the University of Chicago.
An example is his work with a compound called vincristine, derived from the Madagascar periwinkle or vinca, as it's often known in American flowerbeds. Used for years as an anticancer drug and particularly successful in treating childhood leukemia, vincristine's structure and action are nonetheless still largely unstudied. So Rawal decided to make vincristine from scratch in the laboratory both to study the drug and to develop reactions that might tweak its original structure for even better performance in treating leukemia.
The chemist also noted, "Once you start work on a problem in basic research, it often leads to new and unexpected directions."
Indeed his team's vincristine research has recently led to what Rawal described as "probably the most exciting thing to happen in my group in a number of years." Using a simple alcohol, his group invented a rapid, straightforward reaction that could assemble pieces of complex molecules in the correct 'hand' a remarkable 99 percent of the time. Like actual hands, many molecules in nature come in pairs of mirror images and often only one of them conveys a drug's beneficial effects, while the other is sometimes even harmful.
As a young boy in India, Rawal had a passion for "understanding how things worked and why," he said, an inquisitiveness he carried to school in the United States. It was in his college years, however, that a
Contact: Sharon Worthy
American Chemical Society