"My whole approach to becoming a synthetic organic chemist came from making things with my hands," said White, a chemistry professor at Oregon State University. As a boy growing up in England, he explained, "I was always into fiddling with things I was a model airplane buff as a teenager, for example."
He describes his work now as "essentially molecule-building, putting pieces together with elegance and skill." In a career that has spanned more than four decades, he and his research team have achieved that goal a remarkable 45 times, recreating natural products made by plants, microorganisms or animals.
Researchers often look to synthetic methods because harvesting a compound directly from nature especially in quantity, as in the case of a successful drug candidate may be too expensive or its source too scarce.
One of White's projects in recent years has focused on epothilone, a compound derived from bacteria that shows promise as a treatment for cancer. Early clinical studies show it attacks the same cell processes as taxol, itself a natural product first found in the Pacific yew tree.
Epothilone "caught my eye in the mid-1990s," he said, "and it looked like we could plan its synthesis with little problem. And we did, with a unique and successful 25-step synthesis."
A U.S. pharmaceutical company has since expressed interest in using White's synthesis to develop the compound, and indeed epothilone may one day replace taxol in treating cancer: "The molecule certainly can be synthesized in sufficient quantity, and completely in the lab," unlike taxol, he sa
Contact: Sharon Worthy
American Chemical Society