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Alfred Bader Award In Bioinorganic Or Bioorganic Chemistry

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry

by Kenneth Moore
February 9, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 6

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin M. Smith
Credit: Courtesy of Kevin M. Smith

Sponsored by Alfred R. Bader

With a nickname like “the Mercedes-Benz of porphyrin chemistry,” Kevin M. Smith obviously has raised the bar for porphyrin chemistry research. “Smith has always been one of my heroes in the area of porphyrin chemistry,” says Jonathan L. Sessler, Roland K. Pettit Centennial Professor of the University of Texas, Austin. “Kevin is a great guy, so I was delighted when I heard he won.”

“I was speechless” upon being contacted about the award, says Smith, 66, the LSU Foundation James C. Bolton Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. He says he was “completely surprised,” with “much glee and thankfulness.”

Smith’s work on the biosynthesis and structure determination of bacteriochlorophylls and the development of synthetic methods for porphyrins and other biologically important tetrapyrroles has made him a “truly outstanding” pick for the award, says Sir Alan R. Battersby, professor emeritus of Cambridge University. Battersby was a professor at Liverpool University while Smith was conducting his graduate research. “I felt convinced that Smith was a special rising star,” Battersby says.

Most of the current knowledge of the structures of bacteriochlorophylls c, d, and e and the group of chlorophylls found in green and brown algae comes almost entirely from Smith’s group, according to Battersby. That the group has shown that bacteria can adjust light-absorption wavelengths of their bacteriochlorophyll with a methylating enzyme is “a superb example of the powerful interaction of chemistry with biology,” Battersby says.

Smith is currently interested in using synthetic porphyrins to treat cancer through photodynamic therapy. After being injected into a patient, certain porphyrins and chlorophyll derivatives localize in tumor tissue. Once irradiated with laser light, these compounds sensitize the formation of singlet oxygen, which destroys the tumor. Smith’s group is working on porphyrin-type sensitizers that localize more effectively in tumor tissue and absorb longer wavelength light, enabling treatment of larger tumors.

Smith edited the book “Porphyrins and Metalloporphyrins” and coedited the 20-volume set “The Porphyrin Handbook.” He has also published 684 papers and holds eight patents.

Smith became interested in porphyrin chemistry at Liverpool, under the tutelage of George W. Kenner. “Kenner lived and breathed porphyrin and peptide chemistry,” Smith says. “The enthusiasm was contagious.” Smith received a B.Sc. in 1964, a Ph.D. in 1967, and a D.Sc. in 1977, all from Liverpool. After the Ph.D., he spent two years as a postdoc at Harvard University working with Nobel Laureate Robert B. Woodward, returning to Liverpool in 1969 as a lecturer. In 1977, he moved to the University of California, Davis, to be a professor of chemistry.

Apart from mentoring almost 150 graduate students and postdocs in his career, between 1990 and 2004, Smith was chair of chemistry and associate vice chancellor for research and then vice chancellor for research at UC Davis, moving to vice chancellor for research and graduate studies and dean of the graduate school at LSU. “Now that I’m just a professor, I like to read and listen to music more often,” Smith says. “I also have a three-year-old son, believe it or not. He takes up a lot of time.”

Smith will present the award address before the Division of Organic Chemistry.


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