Tuesday, April 29, 2008

the office

Some of my friends from the UWO lab occasionally glance at this blog and it's time I offer them a bit more chemistry talk. If anyone else is interested, feel free to listen in :)

So…. this is my new office:

The lab is a bit different from Western: newer, cleaner, bigger, and not quite as crazy. Maybe a bit more mature - but I think that's just because there are post-docs here. The chemistry, though, is pretty much the same. Once you’ve done one Swern you’ve done them all. And benzyl bromide is no easier on the eyes in the southern hemisphere… I guess that was to be expected.

So I’ll start from the beginning: the ESKITIS Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies is a new, and somewhat unusual, Griffith University research facility. We have just moved into a clean shiny building that houses a variety of scientists with one overall theme. It's fairly simple: we're all trying to find a cure for something, anything really. Ideally something important that’s just'a'been ichin’ for a good’ol curin!. This is a picture of the front of the building. There are not many windows. I’m pretty sure that the construction ran over budget and someone practical-minded was forced to decide to sacrifice a few windows to keep what's ‘inside’ as awesome as they could

One area of research that I had not seen before coming here is ‘isolation chemistry’. I now work with some very skilled isolation types. For many years they were heavily funded by AstraZeneca but have lately, and suddenly, they've been forced to become more 'academic minded'. Anyway, the 'Natural Products Development' team has assembled a massive ‘compound library’ with 500 000+ ‘potential drugs’ all of natural origin meticulously gathered from pretty much all of Australia’s plants and creatures (both on and off shore). These compounds are now sitting here ready and willing to be screened against ‘stuff’. (If you know what I’m talking about and you have a hot new therapeutic target - and buckets of money - come on down.) The compound library is housed in gigantic flashing units of robo-awesomeness that would look right at home if they were fitted onto the side of a space station. I was surprised to find out that we don’t actually know the structures of most of the molecules in the library. The idea is to first find the useful bioactivity – then go back and worry about the structure. Interesting eh? Here’s a pamphlet:

Incidentally, IY, the isolation people I work with are the same fine scientists who fished out all of those sweet compounds you have been busting your butt making for PB and ACIE! Professor Ron Quinn, the same gentleman you referenced a half-dozen times, is director of the entire institute, and is my boss's boss. ‘ESKITIS’, by the way, doesn’t stand for anything. Someone important just thought it would sound cool – like ADVIL, or VIAGRA.

The new building also houses ‘adult stem-cell research’ facilities. I know roughly as much about that as I do about ‘being out of debt’ but apparently the stem-cell-stuff paid for most of the new building – so it has to be some sort of big deal. We also have a big X-ray lab run by a very bright young German professor who takes many pretty pictures of very cold proteins and requires very large flat panel monitors on the office computers of his students.

Most of the ESKITIS building, however, is full of biologists who go about doing their biology things with the ‘enzymes’ and the ‘rats’ and the endless ‘acronyms’. Truthfully, I don’t have time to know or care. The biologists (or 'failed organic chemists' if you prefer) live downstairs and we don’t talk to them. Yet. (I’m told we should start.)

Upstairs are the organic chemistry labs. In stark contrast to what much of the main-stream-regular world thinks of ‘science’, synthetic organic chemists generally believe that we are very cool. Some would even say, and I'm sure I have, that we are like the ‘naval aviators’ of drug discovery - and our labs are the aircraft carriers. Big-bad-and dangerous (and sometimes full of water). I'm sure this whole place would be safer, simpler, and smell more pleasant without us but it would be utterly ineffective because - try all you want - you can't find a new drug without good’ol organic synthesis.

Chemists and the biologists are like surgeons and docs. Sure, the hospital needs both but only surgeons are trusted with sharp objects just like only chemists are trusted with flameable solvents and explosive reagents. Surely I must be starting to offend somebody - if it's you, chillax, let a guy have his fun.

What else can I tell you? First, just to make sure that I don’t mislead anyone. ESKITIS is NOT a pharmaceutical company. We are a bunch of independent scientists each doing our own thing under the same friendly banner of ‘drug discovery’. Certainly the Coster group is far from ‘real pharma’. Nor could we ever compete – or want to compete – with a professional med-chem facility. I suppose I work in an ‘academic med-chem group’ – with a big emphasis on ‘academic’. We do standard total synthesis here and grad students learn the mad skillzzz. We use the ‘med-chem’ label simply because with every synthetic target there is some evil disease to consider. I am not just making a 'cool compound’, I am making a ‘cool anti-pancreatic cancer compound’. There is a subtle difference - day to day there is no difference - but the overall mentality of trying to do ‘something worthwhile for the world’ even in academia is one I like. Of course, the chances of actually discovering a useful drug are about the same as winning the lottery - all we have done so far is made sure to buy a few tickets. Also, this med-chem angle forces me make an effort to read a bit about disease pathology and try to stay current with respect to pharmaceutical gaps that need fillin’ – and there are plenty. I suppose some people would argue that such reading takes time away from learning ‘named reactions’ :)

Now for some pictures. First, I never imagined that I would be able to do chemistry on such an awesome chair! I spend my days rolling back and forth between these two positions

These are my nearest neighbours: Coster grad students Sean (running a Swernilicious reaction) and Adam (a column).

Incidentally, IY (and some others) will be happy to hear that all of my chromatography is now performed in a hood. It’s not a problem now with the vast fume hood space and the awesome chair. Strange how things change – I actually found myself turning off the UV lamp after someone the other day and feeling frustrated with them for it. How messed up is that!
For those that have not seen one: here is a ‘fumehood’. It’s big, it’s very well equipped, and it’s all wonderfully mine to destroy!
One wall of the lab is floor to ceiling glass and looks out into the office space. I figure it was designed this way for a number of reasons: cool-looking, open, bright, the safety of visibilty to others when something explodes or starts to burn quickly, and finally 'public relations'. This entire building is designed to be perfect for a walk through by a politician and some media with a camera crew – they can look through the glass at the ‘busy young scientists working hard to save the world’. Now... these two machines I am very excited about. The twins! These are the Cadillac and Ferrari of rotary evaporators! Big spender Dr. Coster just bought seven or eight of these slick little beasts. I can not even begin to describe how wonderful life has become with these pretty ladies on the bench. They're bright and digital and very friendly, everything is quick, nothing bumps, and I have yet to see a solvent peak anywhere. I feel like I’m cheating when I use one of these sexy rotovaps. Work is just not supposed to be this easy. The thick black foam is insulation around the chilled-water lines that run through the entire building and condense pretty much every drop of ether or DCM. Sweeeet!!

Well, that’s about it for today. Generally speaking, the lab is great. I am happy to say that this whole 'down under' business is turning out to be a pretty good decision for life, marriage, work, and all the rest. Obviously, I will need a publication or two this year just to make sure. And as far as project specifics are concerned, I’m going to keep that to myself for now because I’m pretty close to a neat little total synthesis and there is an American group also in the game. We would like to be the first to the finish line - so I will avoid any chance of 'encouraging' the competition. That reminds me – I have to get back to work.

Let me leave you, if I may, with another picture of one of my new lab mates. This is young Sean O’Connor, a Dutch-Aussie who wants to be an Irishman, who we often keep locked in the ‘inorganics’ closet when we feel that he is becoming too irritating. On this particular day, we let him open the door and get some light while he worked. Cheers.


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