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University of Montreal professor Stephen Hanessian “is the preeminent synthetic organic chemist in Canada, and his impact on the development and promotion of the pharmaceutical industry in Canada has been enormous,” according to his departmental colleague James D. Wuest.
This award in the chemistry of natural products honors Hanessian’s “unique vision and approach to organic synthesis in general, and natural products in particular, in which creativity, diversity, innovation, and practicality are combined,” Wuest says.
Hanessian credits his success to his ability to visualize bond-forming processes as well as the relationships between molecules. “Sometimes a painting, a certain shape, or hearing a word can lead to a chemical idea,” he says. One source was Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” in which the extended arms of God and Adam almost touch. That image inspired Hanessian to link two weak enzyme inhibitors to create a more potent herbicide.
He describes himself as “a ‘synthephile’ who is excited by the exhilaration of discovery and how an idea jotted down on the back of an envelope or an airline boarding pass can be rendered to practice.”
Over the years, Hanessian has “demonstrated his prowess in synthesis and molecular design by a long series of impressive achievements in the chemistry of natural products,” Wuest says. “A partial list of total syntheses accomplished during the last 35 years includes such challenging targets as avermectin B1a, ionomycin, dihydromevinolin, reserpine, bafilomycin A1, and pactamycin.”
The applications of Hanessian’s work include potential inhibitors of thrombin (a clotting enzyme associated with stroke), an antihypertensive drug, a diabetes drug, and fungicides.
Furthermore, “the high profile of his science worldwide has made his laboratory a superb training center, sought out by researchers from all parts of the world,” Wuest notes. “As a teacher and mentor, he has trained nearly 300 young scientists who now pursue industrial and academic careers worldwide. Many have become leaders in their fields. This is a legacy that has no equal in Canada and is a tribute to an exceptional scientist.”
Hanessian earned a Ph.D. at Ohio State University with Melville L. Wolfrom in 1960 and then investigated natural product and medicinal chemistry at Parke-Davis & Co., in Ann Arbor, Mich., until 1968. He joined the University of Montreal faculty as an associate professor the following year and was promoted to full professor in 1970. He holds the Isis Pharmaceuticals Research Chair. Since 2006, he has also served as a professor in the chemistry, pharmaceutical sciences, and pharmacology departments at the University of California, Irvine, where he is director of a newly established graduate program in medicinal chemistry.
Hanessian, who at 76 has more than 500 publications and 42 patents to his name, consults for the pharmaceutical, biotech, and agrochemical industries in North America, Europe, and China.
His many awards include the Palladium Medal of the Chemical Institute of Canada in 1988 and an Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award from the American Chemical Society in 1996. Also in 1996, Hanessian received the Canada Gold Medal for Science & Engineering, the nation’s foremost award in science. In 1998, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, the highest national award for a citizen.
Hanessian will present the award address before the ACS Division of Organic Chemistry.