Chemist Iwao Ojima of Port Jefferson, N.Y., will be honored April 3 by the world's largest scientific society for his achievements in discovering and assembling new drug candidates, such as second-generation cancer drugs based on taxol. He will receive the 2001 E.B. Hershberg Award for Important Discoveries in Medicinally Active Substances from the American Chemical Society at its national meeting in San Diego.
Ojima, chairman of the chemistry department at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, said his research originally focused on developing peptides, or small proteins, to treat conditions such as high blood pressure and blood clots.
"Then in the 1980s, taxol became a very hot topic," he said, referring to the cancer drug derived from the Pacific yew tree, habitat for the spotted owl. Ojima developed a method to synthesize taxol in the laboratory and is now working on second-generation drugs called taxoids.
"We'd immediately recognized that taxol has many terrible side effects," including neurotoxicity and bone marrow and cardiac damage, he explained. "Drug resistance is a problem too."
As a result of his research, the first orally active taxoid - that is, a pill or drink instead of an hours-long infusion - is now in Phase I clinical trials. Structural changes Ojima's team made allowed absorption by the intestines as well as more potency in killing resistant tumors.
The synthetic organic chemist has also teamed up with Boston-based ImmunoGen to attach the taxoid to monoclonal antibodies. These tumor-specific molecules can ferry the drug to its target, allowing nearly a 50-fold decrease in dosage and side effects, said Ojima. So far the approach is promising in animal tests, he added.
A native of Japan, Ojima said his early interest in research was sparked by his father, an inorganic chemist. As for his particular field, he added, "I think just knowing cancer patients personally encouraged me to do something about
Contact: Rodney Pearson
American Chemical Society