October 8, 2012 by IPAlchemist
As I mention on the Chemistry page, I have been a member of the RSC (Royal Society of Chemistry) since I returned from Japan after my post-doc. My engagement with the Society has not always, I have to admit, been as extensive as I would like. This is something that I have been seeking to address over the last year or so.
Recently, there were a couple of great lectures in the evening at the RSC’s lovely centre at Burlington House on Piccadilly (just next to the Royal Academy of Arts) as part of a series “Chemistry for Tomorrow’s World 2012”. Each was telling the story of the development of one chemical – a pharmaceutical and a plant fungicide respectively.
The first talk was by Professor Johann de Bono, of the Institute of Cancer Research. Professor de Bono is a clinician, who was responsible for the clinical trials and development of abiraterone acetate, which is a drug for the treatment of prostate cancer. He spoke about the collaboration that resulted in the development of abiraterone. The drug works by inhibiting the synthesis of sex hormones, which are required for the advance of the cancer – by inhibition of the synthesis of the hormones, the cancer is controlled. In particular, abiraterone specifically and irreversibly blocks an enzyme called CYP17. The achievement of abiraterone required both a better understanding of the disease of prostate cancer itself, as well as the creation of new active hormone analogues. The session also considered the role of collaboration between industry and academic researchers, with a panel session including Dr Duncan Holmes of GSK and Professor Simon Ward of the University of Sussex.
The second talk was by Dr John Clough of Syngenta, and concerned the development of Azoxystrobin, the world’s leading agricultural fungicide. Azoxystrobin is a synthetic compound, inspired by the structure and activity of the natural product strobilurin A. This talk, in addition to some fascinating chemistry, had an interesting patent angle – research was taking place along similar lines in different companies, and there was a race to the patent office in respect of the first family of compounds developed, with the losers then developing a different pharmacophore in order to circumvent the earlier-filed patent. There was also discussion of the problem of the development of resistance in some fungi – the solution is simply to rotate crops, and/or apply fungicides in combination.
These talks were gratifying to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, I can remember being told right back when I was a chemistry student at Oxford that chemistry was going to be supplanted by biotech-based approaches. Both of these stories illustrated that the death of chemistry has been greatly exaggerated, and I was struck by how “chemical” both abiraterone and azoxystrobin are. The era of intervention with small molecules is far from over. And secondly, the stories showed the power of what can be achieved by such intervention. And finally, the role of patents also featured in the narrative.
On the other hand I was, and remain, worried. Firstly, the monolithic research laboratories of the traditional chemical companies (both agrochemical and pharmaceutical) are being dismantled. Will bright young students continue to be attracted into chemistry if they don’t see chemical jobs at the end of it? Small start-up and spinout companies will be practically invisible to teenagers, whereas the large pharmaceutical companies were highly visible. Even though most chemistry students eventually do not pursue chemical research, and this has been so for a very long time, the decline in the idea that this option is available will, I fear, inevitably decrease the attraction of the subject. If we are not careful, we risk a cycle of decreased job opportunities resulting in decreasing study of the subject, resulting in a lowering of the quality of the entrants to the subject and hence the graduates, which will cause what research is being conducted to move elsewhere, resulting in decreased job opportunities. And so a worrying downward spiral seems a real possibility.
Secondly, what was presented in these two sessions is hugely at odds with the public perception of chemistry. I saw stories of chemicals being used to treat life-threatening diseases, and increase agricultural production (at a time when we need to use all available agricultural resources as effectively as possible if the world is to be fed). And yet popularly “chemical” is synonymous with “toxic”, “chemical company” has negative overtones, and “natural” (whatever that means) is associated with benign efficacy.
Work on the public perception of science is being done by many individuals and organisations. Nevertheless, the popular press seems unable to engage with the scientific method, and while some areas of science are experiencing a renaissance – astronomy, cosmology, and particle physics, for example, the image of chemistry remains as bad as ever, as far as I can see. Through the RSC, I hope that more can be done.
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