Emory Report
November 24, 2008
Volume 61, Number 13



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November 24
, 2008
Cooking organically

By Carol Clark

White-coated graduate students bustle about a loft-like room as Huw Davies gives a tour of his lab in Atwood Hall, established when he became Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Organic Chemistry this fall. The 5,000-square-foot space is filled with oversized beakers and flasks, fume hoods, stirrers, furnaces and metal racks of reagents. The skull-and-crossbones symbol pops up frequently, along with the label “Danger: Highly Flammable.”

An odd smell wafts from just outside the lab. “Oh, that’s somebody’s lunch in the microwave,” says Davies, in the lilting accent of his native Wales.

“Organic chemists are like cooks,” he adds, explaining the underlying philosophy of his research group. “If you’ve got a recipe with 20 ingredients that takes hours to complete, you don’t want to make that dish very often. But if you can take two or three ingredients and in 10 minutes make this incredibly tasty thing — that’s really useful.”

Davies, who enjoys gourmet cooking in his spare time (ask him for his carrot cake recipe), does not believe in complicating things unnecessarily, whether he’s in his kitchen or his laboratory. His research group focuses on streamlined synthesis methods for drug discovery and has garnered 10 patents, more than 180 peer-reviewed publications, ongoing funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and collaborations with scientists working on therapies for everything from cancer to drug addiction.

“The students know that when they get a really strange reaction, I’m going to be interested,” Davies says. “What this lab is good at is finding opportunities in unexpected results. That’s part of the fun.”

Although safety is paramount in his lab, Davies admits that he went through a learning curve during his graduate student years at the University of East Anglia, England. He recalls working with an enormous flask filled with five liters of chemicals, including sulfuric acid: “I had the flask in my hand and I was moving it around. I may have shaken it a bit too vigorously. As a consequence, five liters of stuff went all over me and my clothes.”

British reserve prevented him from stripping beneath the hallway safety shower. Instead, Davies soaked himself while fully clothed and jumped on his motorbike to ride home. “It was the middle of winter. I was losing feeling in my hands and feet and I didn’t know if it was the cold or the sulfuric acid. Luckily, it was the cold,” he says.

After a postdoctoral position at Princeton University, Davies joined the faculty at Wake Forest University and later the State University of New York in Buffalo, creating successful labs at both facilities.

“It’s important to understand the trends in your science, but not to follow them,” Davies says. Early in his career, the hot trend in organic chemistry was to synthesize complicated natural products — the more complex the better, even when the process required dozens of steps and enormous resources.

Davies did not have the money to compete in this area, so he took a different tact — seeking ways to simplify chemical synthesis. Think of the microwave versus the conventional oven. “We’re trying to do the same thing from a chemical perspective, developing more efficient ways of cooking,” Davies says.

His lab has patented a powerful catalyst made from rhodium, crystallized into a helix. The catalyst generates reactions so efficiently that less than an ounce of the catalytic material could theoretically be used to create a ton of a synthesized product. That makes it highly scalable and cost-effective for drug production.

Another advantage of the catalyst is that it can selectively produce single mirror images of molecules. Like hands, many carbon-based drug compounds occur as mirror-image pairs. While the “left hand” of the compound may have a valuable pharmaceutical effect, the “right hand” could produce an unwanted side effect, making selectivity critical.

In an upcoming paper, Davies demonstrates how his group’s methods can make a new class of compounds to selectively activate targets in the central nervous system, and serve as potent monoamine transporter inhibitors.

“It’s conceivable that we could apply this new chemistry to develop molecular probes to study the biology of these targets, or develop therapeutic agents for depression and cocaine addiction,” says Davies, who hopes to find collaborators at Emory to expand this research.