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ACS celebrates its 2021 Heroes of Chemistry

Chemists are honored for their contributions to treatments for bloodstream infections, cancer, diabetes, and heart failure

by Alexandra A. Taylor
December 5, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 44


An illustration of two people in lab coats projecting large, super hero–shaped shadows on a wall.
Credit: Shutterstock

Industrial scientists from 3M, Abb­Vie, AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers Squibb, Merck & Co., Novartis, and Pfizer are being recognized with the American Chemical Society’s 2021 Heroes of Chemistry Awards. These researchers’ contributions have led to advancements in treatments for bloodstream infections, cancer, diabetes, and heart failure.

The Heroes of Chemistry Awards are ACS’s highest honor for industrial chemical scientists, who make up a significant proportion of ACS’s membership. The program, started in 1996, is sponsored by the ACS Board Committee on Corporation Associates and celebrates industrial advances that have benefited humankind.

Here’s a look at the commercial products being honored this year:

3M: Tegaderm CHG Chlorhexidine Gluconate I.V. Securement Dressing

Tegaderm CHG.
Credit: 3M
3M's Tegaderm Antimicrobial I.V. Advanced Securement Dressing

Catheter-related bloodstream infections (CRBSIs) are fatal to more than a quarter of patients who contract one. Over 40,000 cases of CRBSIs are reported per year. Contact with the catheter insertion site—for example, when a clinician lifts the tape and gauze to look for signs of infection—can expose the site to bacteria and increase the risk.

3M’s Tegaderm CHG Chlorhexidine Gluconate I.V. Securement Dressing is a highly breathable, transparent dressing that contains a gel pad of the antimicrobial chlorhexidine gluconate (CHG). The dressing is placed over the insertion site for central venous catheters. Clinicians can see through the dressing, minimizing contact with the insertion site. The dressing is clinically proven to reduce CRBSIs.

“When we got the evidence that we could significantly reduce bloodstream infections, that was just the top of my career,” says Bob Asmus, a retired corporate scientist from 3M and one of the award winners. Asmus led the development of Tegaderm CHG, which launched in 2008.

CHG is clear, which made it the antimicrobial of choice for this dressing, Asmus explains. But CHG photodegrades, is thermally unstable, and is prone to forming insoluble salts with certain anions. The Tegaderm CHG team successfully protected the CHG from these factors while ensuring the antimicrobial could still diffuse from the gel pad to the insertion site.

In 2018, 3M introduced a new product, Tegaderm Antimicrobial I.V. Advanced Securement Dressing, a lower-cost dressing intended for use with peripherally inserted IV catheters. Incorporating the antimicrobial directly into the adhesive as opposed to in a gel pad simplified manufacturing, explains Ying Zhang, a senior product development specialist in 3M’s medical solutions division and one of the award winners.

3M is now exploring the next generation of transparent securement dressings.

AbbVie: Venclexta/Venclyxto

The chemical line structure of venetoclax.

Cancer cells are able to short-circuit a form of programmed cell death known as apoptosis, and this ability gives them a survival advantage. Understanding resistance to apoptosis is a critical area in cancer research. Several hematologic cancers depend on B-cell lymphoma-2 (BCL-2) proteins to inhibit apoptosis.

AbbVie’s venetoclax, marketed as Venclexta in the US and Venclyxto outside the US, selectively inhibits BCL-2 proteins. The drug gives patients a new option to treat certain blood cancers.

Venclexta “took an entirely new approach to treating cancer by inducing programmed cell death, specifically in cancer cells, whereas most other chemo­therapies just kill fast-growing cells,” including normal blood cells, explains Steve Elmore, vice president for drug discovery, science, and technology at Abb­Vie and one of the award winners.

Elmore led the team that discovered venetoclax, which took more than a decade of lab work. Venetoclax was the first marketed drug specifically designed to inhibit a protein-protein interaction.

Elmore says it gives him a sense of purpose and satisfaction to know that “our science and the stuff we did in the lab is helping people reclaim their lives.” He believes there are other opportunities for new drugs to act on different pathways of programmed cell death. “I think [Venclexta] is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says.

AstraZeneca/Bristol Myers Squibb: Farxiga

The chemical line structure of Farxiga.

Hyperglycemia, or high blood glucose, is a manifestation of type 2 diabetes and over time can lead to serious health problems. The drug Farxiga (dapagliflozin) can help treat type 2 diabetes by inhibiting excess glucose from being reabsorbed from the kidneys into the blood, instead causing the glucose to be excreted into the urine.

Along with glucose, Farxiga also causes some excretion of water and sodium. As a result, the drug promotes a modest lowering of body weight and blood pressure. While the exact mechanisms are still being worked out, the combination of these effects has shown benefits for cardiovascular disease and kidney disease, in addition to its original indication as a diabetes treatment.

The compound was discovered by a team at Bristol Myers Squibb led by award winner Bill Washburn and developed as part of a clinical-stage partnership between Bristol Myers Squibb and AstraZeneca.

Farxiga represented a new class of sodium-glucose linked transporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors. The shift from an O-linked glucoside to a C-linked glucoside gave the compound more stability in the body and enabled the successful clinical development of SGLT2 inhibitors for diabetes and protection against morbidity from heart failure and chronic kidney disease.

Bruce Ellsworth, executive director and head of fibrotic disease discovery chemistry at Bristol Myers Squibb and another award winner, says it’s a thrill “that this training in organic chemistry could really lead to something that actually benefits human health.”

“It’s very rewarding and very gratifying to see,” says award-winner Nayyar Iqbal, vice president for clinical metabolism at AstraZeneca. “Our baby is now mature and grown up.”

Merck & Co.: Keytruda

A bottle of Keytruda sitting next to its box.
Credit: Merck & Co.
Merck & Co.'s Keytruda

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Keytruda, a humanized monoclonal antibody treatment, is a checkpoint inhibitor that binds to and blocks a protein called PD-1, thus helping the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells.

Keytruda represents new hope in the treatment of various cancers. “People are seeing a meaningful benefit in many cancer indications,” says Parimal Desai, vice president of engineering in Merck & Co.’s manufacturing division and one of the award winners.

Keytruda was initially approved to treat metastatic melanoma, but today is approved for more than 30 indications across 16 different tumor types. Tumors that express PD-1 can generally be classified for Keytruda treatment.

When it saw the promise of Keytruda, “Merck moved heaven and earth,” Desai says. “The whole company got aligned.” Desai led a team of more than 1,000 scientists and engineers to expedite chemistry, manufacturing, and control (CMC) development. The company compressed CMC development timelines and expanded production volumes to keep pace with positive data from clinical trials. The US Food and Drug Administration granted the drug accelerated approval in 2014.

Desai expects that anti-PD-1 inhibitors, either alone or in combination with other drugs, will change the practice of cancer treatment. “Doctors are feeling for the first time that we have control over a terminal disease,” he says.

Novartis: Entresto

People over 40 years old have a 20% lifetime risk of developing heart failure, which occurs when the heart is unable to pump enough blood around the body.

Novartis’s Entresto (sacubitril/valsartan) has been approved to reduce the risk of death and hospitalization in patients with chronic heart failure with reduced ejection fraction, meaning the heart’s left ventricle does not pump sufficiently. It has also been approved in certain countries to treat chronic heart failure with preserved ejection fraction.

Entresto is a combination angiotensin receptor-neprilysin inhibitor. Valsartan blocks angio­tensin II receptor type 1, which causes blood vessels to dilate and reduces extracellular fluid (ECF) volume. Sacubitril is a prodrug that is activated to sacubitrilat; this metabolite inhibits the enzyme neprilysin, thereby increasing the levels of certain peptides that cause blood vessels to dilate and ECF volume to lower as a result of sodium excretion.

The American College of Cardiology now recommends Entresto as the frontline therapy ahead of the previous standard of care, which was based on ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers.

Pfizer: Lorbrena

A bottle of Lorbrena tablets.
Credit: Pfizer
Pfizer's Lorbrena

For patients with ALK-positive non-small-cell lung cancer, treatments can fail as a result of resistance mutations or brain metastases. Drugs that cross the blood-brain barrier to treat such metastases can be risky because of the potential for side effects.

Lorbrena is an ALK inhibitor that was developed to treat all known drug-resistance mutations, plus brain metastases. It was designed to cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the central nervous system. “It was risky, but it was a risk we wanted to take,” says Ted W. Johnson, a research fellow with Pfizer and one of the award winners.

The Pfizer team used structure-based drug design, which allows researchers to target a specific mutation that’s driving a tumor. This approach meant the compound was safer and gave a higher likelihood it would be efficacious in the clinic.

“As someone in research, most of the programs I work on never make it to Phase 1 clinical trials,” Johnson says. He was the co–project lead for the Lorbrena program and is the coinventor of Lorbrena.

Lorbrena is an oral therapy and has less severe side effects than traditional chemo​therapy. It was approved as a frontline therapy earlier this year. Johnson believes Lorbrena has opened the door to more such targeted therapies.

Nominations are being accepted for the 2022 Heroes of Chemistry Awards until Feb. 1 and can come from any area of industrial chemistry. For more information, visit or email

The winners


    Bob Asmus
    Dan Duan
    Jim DiZio
    Don Peterson
    Dan Popko
    Maria Ruiz
    Deb Schwab
    Terry Smorch
    George Zhicheng Tian
    Kheng Vang
    Ying Zhang


    Milan Bruncko
    Vincent Chan
    Alan Christesen
    Hong Ding
    Steve Elmore
    Timothy Grieme
    Lisa Hasvold
    Yi-Yin Ku
    Aaron Kunzer
    Mathew Mulhern
    Chang Park
    Cheol-Min Park
    Yu-Ming Pu
    Saul Rosenberg
    Xiaohong Song
    Andrew Souers
    Gerald Sullivan
    Zhi-Fu Tao
    Le Wang
    Xilu Wang
    Michael Wendt

    AstraZeneca/Bristol Myers Squibb

    Elisabeth Björk
    David Boulton
    Prashant Deshpande
    Bruce Ellsworth
    Karen From
    Nayyar Iqbal
    Anna Maria Langkilde
    Per Lindblom
    Peggy McCann
    Wei Meng
    Daniele Paone
    Phil Sher
    Bill Washburn
    Gang Wu

    Merck & Co.

    Marc Bastiaansen
    Parimal Desai
    Stephen Farrand
    Kevin Gurney
    Brad Holstine
    Beth Junker
    Sunitha Kandula
    Thomas Linden
    Nguyen Ly
    Gargi Maheshwari
    Athena Nagi
    Chakravarthy Narasimhan
    Dennis Rendeiro
    Daisy Richardson
    David Roush
    Patricia Rowicki
    Mohammed Shameem
    Manoj Sharma
    Markus Tanner
    Scott Tobler
    Nihal Tugcu


    Thomas Blacklock
    Reynalda deJesus
    Clive Diefenbacher
    Lili Feng
    Michael Girgis
    Sven Godtfredsen
    Bin Hu
    Piotr Karpinski
    Gary Ksander
    Yugang Liu
    Mahavir Prashad
    Paul Sutton
    Andrew Yuan


    Simon Bailey
    Benjamin Burke
    Michael Collins
    J. Jean Cui
    Judith Deal
    Bob Dugger
    Mingying He
    Jacqui Hoffman
    Robert Hoffman
    Peter Qinhua Huang
    Ted Johnson
    Robert Kania
    John Kath
    Phuong Le
    Bryan Li
    Michele McTigue
    Sebastien Monfette
    Cindy Palmer
    Paul Richardson
    Peter Rose
    Neal Sach


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