Issue Date: March 23, 2009
The 2009 Priestley Medal
THIS WEEK'S cover stories are dedicated to a celebration of the life and work of the winner of the 2009 Priestley Medal, M. Frederick Hawthorne, director of the International Institute of Nano & Molecular Medicine (I2NM2) at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
Our coverage starts with a profile of Hawthorne by Senior Editor Stephen Ritter. "Boron is not boring," Ritter writes. "Just a few minutes with M. Frederick Hawthorne ... will prove it."
"Boron is my element—not that I own it, but it owns me," Hawthorne told Ritter. "I think boron is one of the last easy frontiers for the widespread use of any element. After carbon, it is a second starting point for chemists to develop new products, especially pharmaceuticals and nanomaterials."
The second component of our coverage is Hawthorne's Priestley Medal Address, "Polyhedral Boranes: Chemistry for the Future." In it, Hawthorne relates his serendipitous introduction to boron chemistry when he was asked in 1956 to organize an organometallic chemistry research group for Rohm and Haas at the Redstone Arsenal Army base in Huntsville, Ala.
Hawthorne and his coworkers made numerous discoveries in boron chemistry over the next 50 years, first at Rohm and Haas; then the University of California, Riverside; UCLA; and now Missouri, and he recounts these advances in his address. He also pays tribute to many of the scientists he collaborated with over the years. And he takes note of his long association with the ACS journal Inorganic Chemistry, first as an associate editor in 1966 and then for 32 years as editor-in-chief starting in 1969.
The presentation of this year's Priestley Medal Address will depart from its usual format because of Hawthorne's health. He is currently recovering from the eradication of tongue cancer and the removal of his thyroid gland, all carried out within the past six months. As he writes in a "Priestley Medal Prologue" that is posted with his address on C&EN Online, this has left him without his usual strong voice. Hawthorne taped his address during a period between his surgeries, and a video of that presentation will be played at the ACS Awards ceremony at the national meeting. Hawthorne notes that his prognosis for a full recovery is excellent.
Hawthorne points to a deep irony in his present medical circumstances. A research topic Hawthorne has focused on for the past 50 years has been boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT), and he notes that "one of the foremost targets for BNCT of cancer is squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity," precisely the type of cancer he is now recovering from.
I remember writing about BNCT sometime during my career as a C&EN reporter. (It may well have been as a result of a talk I heard Hawthorne himself give at an ACS meeting!) It is such a seductive idea: Deliver a sufficient quantity of 10B to a tumor and expose the tumor to a beam of low-energy neutrons. The neutrons pass harmlessly through most tissue but are captured by 10B atoms, transforming them into the unstable 11B atoms. These undergo fission, creating alpha particles, lithium nuclei, gamma rays, and excess kinetic energy. "It's like creating a nuclear explosion in a cancer cell," Hawthorne told Ritter.
Unfortunately, BNCT research was dominated for years by neurosurgeons and other researchers who focused their efforts on the incurable brain tumor glioblastoma multiforme. The lack of success using BNCT to treat this tumor led to a cutoff of funding for research into using BNCT to treat other types of tumors.
One of Hawthorne's motivations to create I2NM2 at Missouri was to further research on BNCT. Unlike his previous academic homes, Missouri has a research nuclear reactor, and there is a new low-energy neutron beam dedicated to I2NM2. The university also has medical and veterinary schools, everything, in fact, that Hawthorne needs to advance BNCT, including eager scientists from every possible discipline willing to collaborate.
"So that's where we are at the University of Missouri—a new beginning," Hawthorne told Ritter.
Thanks for reading.
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