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Biological Chemistry

Franklin Institute Honors Chemists

Ceremony highlights achievements of scientists in drug development, health, and other fields

May 16, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 20

The 2005 Franklin Medal and Bower Award laureates (from left): Nambu, Joshi, Vail, Blackburn, Kagan, Zaffaroni, and Viterbi.
The 2005 Franklin Medal and Bower Award laureates (from left): Nambu, Joshi, Vail, Blackburn, Kagan, Zaffaroni, and Viterbi.

Among Benjamin Franklin's numerous pearls of wisdom stands this gem: "An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." In the spirit of these words, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia makes a generous investment each year in scientific knowledge through its high-profile awards program.

Last month, the institute honored seven scientists with its prestigious Benjamin Franklin Medals and Bower Awards. Each Franklin laureate received a gold medal, and the winner of the Bower Award & Prize for Achievement in Science received a $250,000 cash prize as well. The following winners were honored for work based in chemistry or a related field.

Henri B. Kagan received the 2005 Bower Award & Prize for Achievement in Science. He was cited for his extensive work in chirality and asymmetric synthesis, which has led to development of safer, more predictable manufacturing methods for pharmaceuticals.

Kagan, who says he chose chemistry as a career because "it could be very practical," developed new methods for asymmetric synthesis: selective synthesis of one enantiomer of a chiral compound. His work has become pivotal to drug design of compounds of which one enantiomer is beneficial and the other is inert or toxic.

As a professor at the University of Paris-South in Orsay, France, Kagan synthesized the first example of a chiral bidentate diphosphine. His achievement represents the first efficient C2 symmetry ligand and stimulated early development of asymmetric catalysis.

In 2001, Kagan shared the $100,000 Wolf Prize with Ryoji Noyori of Nagoya University and K. Barry Sharpless of Scripps Research Institute for their work in chiral synthesis (C&EN, Jan. 22, 2001, page 15). A native of Boulogne, France, Kagan has taught at several French universities and held visiting professorships in the U.S., Sweden, and Israel. He is now an emeritus professor at the University of Paris-South.

The institute presented Alejandro Zaffaroni with the 2005 Bower Award for Business Leadership for his work in controlled drug delivery. Zaffaroni was a major player in transforming Syntex S.A. from a small Mexican steroids manufacturer to a leading U.S. pharmaceutical firm. He is founder and chairman emeritus of Alza Corp. and has had a hand in forming several other pharmaceutical start-up companies.

Born in Uruguay, Zaffaroni suffered from asthma and was often sick as a child. Unable to join his friends in physical activities, he amused himself by observing the natural world and became fascinated with biology and chemistry. Zaffaroni eventually became intrigued by the way living systems regulate hormone levels, a process that inspired him to design controlled-release drug-delivery methods.

He joined Syntex in 1951 as director of biochemical research, eventually climbing the corporate ladder to become president of the firm and transferring its labs to Palo Alto, Calif. Even with his full management duties, Zaffaroni maintained a role in R&D, including work with Carl Djerassi on development of the first oral contraceptive.

In 1968, Zaffaroni left Syntex to found Alza, where he also played a dual role in research and management. One of his major developments during his 30 years with the firm is the transdermal nicotine patch, which has helped millions of people quit smoking.

Elizabeth H. Blackburn won the 2005 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science for her discovery of telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. Her work with these important factors in DNA replication has fueled exciting research in biological aging and cancer therapy.

THE DAUGHTER of two Australian physicians, Blackburn was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University when she first discovered that chromosomes are capped by seemingly nonsensical sequences--known as telomeres--that act as a buffer against the loss of genetic data when DNA replicates.

In 1978, Blackburn moved to the University of California, San Francisco, where she is now a professor of biology and physiology. Her research there led to the discovery of telomerase in 1985, an enzyme that replenishes the telomere buffers. As organisms age, telomerase levels decrease, so DNA replication is impaired and the cell eventually dies. She also found that cancer cells produce higher than average levels of telomerase, helping them survive indefinitely.

This year's recipients of Benjamin Franklin Medals honored for work in other scientific fields are as follows:

◾ The medal in computer and cognitive science went to Aravind K. Joshi, of the University of Pennsylvania, for his contributions to understanding how language is represented in the mind.

◾ The medal in physics went to Yoichiro Nambu, of the University of Chicago, for his key discoveries in particle physics. One of his most notable contributions is his elucidation of the theory of quantum chromodynamics.

◾ Peter R. Vail, professor emeritus of earth science at Rice University, received the earth and environmental sciences medal. Vail pioneered the use of sequence stratigraphy for oil and gas exploration.

◾ The medal in electrical engineering was presented to Andrew J. Viterbi, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. Viterbi revolutionized wireless communication by developing a new algorithm for reducing interference in broadband signals.

The Franklin Institute Awards program, widely regarded as the U.S. equivalent of the Nobel Prize, began in 1824 and has named more than 21,000 laureates. The Bower Awards were added to the program in 1988 following a $7.5 million bequest from Philadelphia chemical manufacturer Henry Bower.

Through its awards program, the Franklin Institute seeks to provide public recognition and encouragement of excellence in science, engineering, and technology. Consequently, in 1998, the institute's long-standing endowed awards program was reorganized under the umbrella of the Benjamin Franklin Medals.

During the awards week--held in Philadelphia from April 18 through 22--hundreds of participants, ranging from schoolchildren to industry leaders, were able to learn about the laureates and their work through symposia at local universities and special public events at the institute. In addition, more than 800 supporters gathered for the formal ceremony and dinner on April 21, which was hosted this year by ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos.

"It's easy to overlook the human stories behind scientific innovation," commented Dennis M. Wint, president and CEO of the Franklin Institute, during the ceremony. The institute, therefore, introduced each laureate through a series of brief videos that gave a glimpse of the scientists' personal backgrounds and explained the impact of their work.


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