Some of the biggest names in chemistry have gathered this week at the University of Missouri, Columbia, for a symposium to celebrate the opening of the International Institute of Nano & Molecular Medicine. This institute is the culmination of a lifetime of work by chemist M. Frederick Hawthorne, the 2009 Priestley Medalist, ACS’s highest honor.
During his nearly 60-year career, which includes stints at Rohm and Haas, UC Riverside, and UCLA, Hawthorne and his colleagues have created a diverse collection of boranes and spin-off compounds, including the carboranes, such as C2B10H12, and the metallacarboranes, such as Ni(C2B9H12)2. Hawthorne has put these compounds to work in applications as varied as medical imaging, drug delivery, neutron-based radiation treatments for cancers and rheumatoid arthritis, catalysis, and nanomachines.
The accomplishment Hawthorne is most excited about is the creation of nontoxic carborane-containing liposomes that selectively target cancer cells for destruction by boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT). In this treatment, boron-containing compounds selectively target brain tumors and are irradiated with neutrons. The boron atoms absorb neutrons and fission, with the result being a mini nuclear explosion that destroys single tumor cells.
But for most of his career, Hawthorne did not have access to a neutron source suitable to test the compounds’ efficacy. That shortfall prompted Hawthorne to pull up his roots at UCLA two years ago and move to Missouri, which built Hawthorne a 30,000-sq-ft research building and neutron beam line connecting to the university’s research nuclear reactor, the largest and most advanced research nuclear reactor in the U.S. The $10 million research center building (artist’s drawing shown) is complete and is being outfitted with instruments. The research center has a staff of 25, which will grow to 40 by January, when the facility is expected to be operational.
“This type of collaborative effort and university support makes it possible for scientists like me to fulfill our dreams,” Hawthorne says. He expects to start BNCT animal trials in January and human trials within the next five years. He believes carboranes will eventually be ubiquitous in pharmaceuticals.
As for the symposium taking place, many of the event's attendees are calling it the best chemistry symposium in recent memory. The list of lecturers is a veritable who’s who of chemists, most of them Hawthorne colleagues and collaborators: George Whitesides, Peter Stang, Robert Grubbs, Fraser Stoddard, Chad Mirkin, Jackie Barton, Jerry Atwood, Tom Baker, Mostafa El-Sayed, Bill Evans, Stephen Lippard, Ken Raymond, Omar Yaghi, Jeffrey Zink, and more. These scientists are describing pieces of their research that are related to the goals of the new institute. Many of Hawthorne’s former group members are in town for the event to celebrate with Hawthorne and his wife, Diana (shown).