Challenging Chemistry | May 24, 2004 Issue - Vol. 82 Issue 21 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 82 Issue 21 | p. 5 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: May 24, 2004

Challenging Chemistry

Department: Editor's Page

Over lunch last week with Nancy Blount and Charmayne Marsh, two veteran staffers of the ACS Office of Communications, the conversation turned to the difficulty of communicating chemistry to the public. We tossed around some of the usual explanations: much of chemistry is hard to explain to a lay audience; chemists are notoriously bland in discussing the potential impact of their work; the public has an innate distrust of the chemical industry.

Another idea we put on the table was that the benefit to the public of a particular piece of chemical research is often separated by many years from when the research was done. The public often ascribes credit for a new drug, for example, to a pharmaceutical company, not to the chemist who synthesized, 15 years earlier, the lead compound that led to the drug.

As the editor-in-chief of a newsmagazine, I’m sensitive to how hard it is to make that linkage. One of C&EN’s most popular items is the “What’s That Stuff?” series of essays on the chemical composition of everyday items like kitty litter, sticky notes, and artificial snow, to name three recent stories. The articles clearly link chemistry to products people know and care about. But “What’s That Stuff?” essays are features, not news stories, and C&EN, as a newsmagazine, must be careful not to devote too many pages to such stories, regardless of their popularity.

Three news stories in this week’s issue illuminate well the fundamental role chemistry plays in modern biomedical research, and how chemistry is contributing to society’s well-being. In one story, Associate Editor Susan Morrissey profiles Jeremy Berg, the new director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), the National Institutes of Health’s largest funding source of chemistry (see page 25).

Berg is a chemist who had a distinguished career at Johns Hopkins University before taking the helm at NIGMS in November 2003. In his interview with Morrissey, he stressed the importance of chemists’ ability to synthesize molecules in tackling biomedical problems.

“I think chemists and biologists have come a long way in terms of realizing what each has to offer and how partnering can be a real win-win situation,” Berg said. “Ideally, this relationship would be a synergistic effort instead of a biologist coming up with a problem and saying to a chemist, ‘We need this molecule; can you make it for me?’ Those collaborations certainly will work, but I think the ones where each participant learns something about both sciences are more beneficial. A lot of times, once chemists understand the biology and know what the issues really are, they can make tremendously creative contributions in areas such as experimental design.”

The creativity of chemists is also highlighted in this week’s cover story by Assistant Editor Louisa Wray Dalton on efforts to develop antiviral drugs to treat respiratory infections (see page 45).

“Finding effective pharmaceutical weaponry to fend off viral attack has historically been tricky,” Dalton writes. Drug company chemists are seeking targets that are unique to viruses and using structure-based drug design to find small molecules to inhibit the action of a targeted enzyme without affecting eukaryotic enzymes.

Dalton traces development of a number of drugs to treat influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and the common cold. Antiviral drug development is costly and takes a lot of perseverance, but one chemist Dalton interviewed noted that this presents an exciting opportunity. “There aren’t a whole slew of viral targets out there,” he said. “And then when you get to doing structure-based design on them, they can be quite challenging” chemicals to synthesize.

Finally, Associate Editor Celia Henry examines how the chemical structure of certain drugs to treat HIV infections affects whether the virus is able to develop resistance to the drugs (see page 40). It turns out that chemists have discovered that the structures of inhibitors of HIV enzymes can be fine-tuned to make them much less susceptible to resistance.

Chemists are adept at synthesizing challenging molecules and probing complex systems. They may not always get the credit they deserve for their ingenuity, but their work changes the world.

Thanks for reading.

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