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Biological Chemistry


June 21, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 25


Three Recognized For Biochemistry Research

van der Donk
van der Donk

Three scientists will receive awards administered by ACS's Division of Biological Chemistry for their contributions to biochemistry research.

Wilfred van der Donk, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is the 2004 winner of the Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry, which is designed to stimulate fundamental research in enzyme chemistry by scientists not over 40 years of age. The Pfizer Award was established in 1945 and consists of a gold medal and honorarium.

Van der Donk studies bioorganic chemistry and enzymology, focusing on understanding enzymatic transformations of pharmaceutical importance. His research work includes insights into the radical cascade catalyzed by the enzyme prostaglandin H synthase--also known as cyclooxygenase, or COX--an important target for anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as the biosynthesis of lantibiotics, a group of ribosomally synthesized peptide antibiotics that are posttranslationally modified to their bioactive forms.

Recently, his group reported the first in vitro reconstitution of this modification process, in which a single enzyme breaks eight chemical bonds and forms six new bonds. He continues to study reprogramming the biosynthesis of these compounds, some of which are used commercially, and is applying protein engineering techniques to optimize phosphite dehydrogenase for use as a cofactor regeneration system in biotechnology.


Van der Donk received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from Leiden University, in the Netherlands, in 1989. He then completed his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Rice University in 1994. After a postdoctoral position with JoAnne Stubbe at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he joined the faculty at Illinois as an assistant professor in 1997. He became an associate professor in 2003.

Benjamin F. Cravatt III, a professor at Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology and the departments of cell biology and chemistry at Scripps Research Institute, will receive this year's Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry, given to stimulate fundamental research in biological chemistry by scientists not over 38 years of age. The Eli Lilly Award consists of a bronze medal and an honorarium and was established in 1934.

Cravatt studies the role that enzymes play in physiological and pathological processes, especially the nervous system and cancer. By developing and applying an array of biochemical, chemical, and genetic technologies, Cravatt's team has helped to determine the mammalian integral membrane enzyme fatty acid amide hydrolase's (FAAH) role as a primary regulator of a large family of brain signaling lipids called endocannabinoids. In addition, they have shown that the FAAH-endocannabinoid system modulates several neurobehavioral processes in vivo, suggesting that this enzyme can function as a new drug target for the treatment of pain, sleep, and inflammatory disorders.

Cravatt has also developed a chemical proteomic strategy called activity-based protein profiling (ABPP) to help facilitate the discovery of enzymes that, like FAAH, play key metabolic and signaling roles in vivo. The system utilizes active-site-directed probes to profile the functional state of numerous enzymes in parallel in whole cell/tissue samples. ABPP probes for several important enzyme classes--including serine hydrolases, metalloproteases, and oxidoreductases--have been developed, and Cravatt has applied these reagents to identify enzyme activity that distinguishes cancer cells based on tumor of origin and state of invasiveness.

Cravatt received a B.S. from Stanford University in biological sciences in 1992 (along with a B.A. in history). He received his Ph.D. in 1996 from Scripps in macromolecular and cellular structure and chemistry and joined Scripps later that year.

The winner of the 2004 Repligen Award in the Chemistry of Biological Processes is JoAnne Stubbe, Novartis Professor of Chemistry & Biology at MIT. The Repligen Award was established in 1985 to acknowledge and encourage outstanding contributions to the understanding of the chemistry of biological processes, with particular emphasis on structure, function, and mechanism. It consists of a silver medal and honorarium.

Stubbe's interests vary widely--she has studied the role of ribonucleotide reductases in DNA replication and repair, iron homeostasis and metal cluster assembly in yeast, the mechanism of assembly of metallocofactors required for nucleotide reduction, polyester biosynthesis to generate biodegradable polymers, and clinically active compounds that inactivate reductases and function as antitumor agents. In addition, she has worked on understanding the evolution and regulation of the enzymes in the purine biosynthetic pathway and the mechanisms of DNA cleavers used clinically as antitumor agents.

Stubbe recently used 2-D NMR spectroscopy to determine the structure of such drugs complexed with DNA, the structure of the lesioned DNA, and the mechanism of repair of the lesions.

Stubbe received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1971. After a postdoctoral stint at the University of California, Los Angeles, she joined the faculty of Williams College, Williamstown, Mass., as an assistant chemistry professor, joining the Yale University School of Medicine's department of pharmacology in 1977. In 1980, she moved to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as an assistant professor of biochemistry, becoming an associate professor in 1983 and a full professor in 1985. She moved to MIT in 1987.


Special Recognition


The Electrocoat Association has announced three award winners for 2004. Tom Palaika, a retired scientist from PPG Industries, was named the George E. F. Brewer Award winner. Palaika was given the award--which honors individuals who have devoted much of their careers to furthering electrocoating technology--for his work in market promotion, application of technology, and paint and process technology. Two others were honored with the Best End-User Paper Award for technical papers written for the Electrocoat 2004 Conference: Bob Woodall, a corrosion engineer at Ford Motor Co., and Jay Burkard, vice president of Burkard Industries. They were also cited for their active involvement in the electrocoating industry and their devotion of personal time and company resources to provide technical information for the conference.


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