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Biological Chemistry

Victor Hruby: Arthur C. Cope Scholar Awardee

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry

by Rachel Petkewich
March 9, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 10

Credit: Courtesy of Victor Hruby
Credit: Courtesy of Victor Hruby

Victor J. Hruby decided to pursue a career in science instead of philosophy because he is passionately interested in how chemical structure relates to biological properties. Colleagues say he started doing chemical biology about 40 years ago—well before the field had a name.

Hruby is a Regents Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at the University of Arizona, Tucson. He joined the faculty in 1968 and currently holds departmental appointments in chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biophysics, medical pharmacology, and neuroscience, as well as at the Arizona Research Laboratories. He is being honored for his groundbreaking contributions in organic chemistry related to design, synthesis, and evaluation of conformationally constrained amino acids and their incorporation into biologically relevant peptides.

He first became acquainted with chemical structures at the University of North Dakota, where he received a B.S. in chemistry and mathematics in 1960 and an M.S. in chemistry in 1962. In 1965, he completed a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Cornell University. Because he wanted to learn more biochemistry, he did a stint as an instructor in Cornell's medical school.

Hruby recalls that his work in chemical biology began at the medical school and started to flourish during his subsequent postdoc back in the chemistry department at Cornell. He learned how to solve the structures of floppy hormones such as oxytocin with nuclear magnetic resonance—then a new technique. He also made new molecules that couldn't be crystallized for analysis by X-ray methods. The only other method to get the structure was NMR, so he learned quickly.

"Hruby was one of the first to appreciate that NMR methods could provide conformational information that would enable the peptide chemist to understand the relationships between primary structure and biological activity," according to a colleague. Hruby also designed and synthesized nickel complexes for asymmetric synthesis that yielded some of the first substituted and constrained amino acids via Michael addition reactions and alkylation reactions.

"Since the early 1970s, Hruby has been interested in how one could utilize synthetic and physical organic chemistry to address significant biophysical questions," says Indraneel Ghosh, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Arizona.

Hruby has helped to develop synthetic hormones and neurotransmitters with high potency, prolonged activity, high receptor selectivity, and stability against proteolytic breakdown. Along with biological collaborators, he has designed compounds related to melanotropins, endocrine chemicals that affect a wide variety of physiology and behavior such as pain and addiction, obesity and anorexia, sexual dysfunction, learning, and hormonal responses from childbirth to maternal behavior. Two compounds related to skin pigmentation dysfunction and cancer prevention are currently in clinical trials.

Hruby has been integrally involved in using organic chemistry to dissect human biology and is a true pioneer in a field that is now called chemical biology, Ghosh adds.

Among Hruby's awards are the ACS Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry and China's Cathay Award, both received in 2002.

Despite his scientific achievements, Hruby has not forgotten about philosophy and art. He combined his interests in science and philosophy by teaching a course called "Scientific and Ethical Aspects of Modifying Human Behavior." An avid patron of the arts, he often attends ballets, theater performances, and music concerts.


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