The title of Assistant Professor of ChemistryDr. James MacKay’s latest publication, “The Intramolecular Allenolate Rauhut-Currier Reaction” may sound overly-complicated and intended for a niche audience, but when looked at in simpler terms, its concepts are easily grasped and represent a two-fold objective: to further the study of synthetic organic chemistry and to teach students how to research and extract the fullest experience possible at Elizabethtown College.
In his comprehensive study, MacKay represents not only a new method of how the science of synthetic organic chemistry works, but also the importance of how to research. The process by which students learn the craft they intend to pursue beyond college is difficult and often times does not lead the student to a rich understanding, which is critical in finding a better, higher paying job.
“It’s like a piece of the puzzle that [the scientific community] is trying to put together, and we have a new route to doing it,” MacKay commented, referring to this process of finding new ways to go about research and experimentation as “New Methodology.” The area of organic chemistry MacKay’s article is based on is referred to as “synthetic organic chemistry.” This sub-field of organic chemistry deals with the synthesizing of new molecules and compounds by the creation of controlled reactions in which the chirality of the desired molecule is being narrowed to usually exclude one side of its chiral nature.
Chirality deals with how receptors in the body (e.g. the nose) react with the different “sides” of a molecule. Picture a mirror. While looking in the mirror at your right hand, the image you see is its mirror opposite. A hand can only have two different properties, but complex molecules, such as those found in cancer treatment medication, can have one side of the molecule being detrimental to someone’s health, while the other is highly beneficial. This area of science not only has nearly limitless potential, but understanding chirality and the chiral nature of life can aid everyone in better understanding the duality of everything that makes up the world we live in. Though his paper stands as a definitive step forward in the field of organic chemistry, MacKay believes “… it’s not there yet” in terms of development within the fieldwork of synthesis. “This is really at the fundamental level,” he added, “the things it could do are far reaching. It could be used in cancer research, to create antibiotics and anti-AIDS molecules.”
The publication of the paper in the “Online Journal of Organic Chemistry,” representing over five years of work, is an intricate piece of the foundation for synthetic chemistry. MacKay described the paper as succeeding in its intended purpose as, “the basic study demonstrated it works.” Some people might use MacKay’s process and apply it to a whole different kind of molecule not discussed in the paper.
A prime example of a practical use of this kind of chemistry in the pharmaceutical world is the anti-cancer drug known as taxol.
This compound is found the Pacific yew tree, which grows near the forests in Mount Helen, Washington.
“One tree,” MacKay explained, “has enough taxol to treat one patient once.” To avoid the deforestation that would have to occur to obtain a sizable amount of the drug, synthetic chemistry, specifically the Rauhut-Currier Reaction, aides in taking this extremely complex compound and finding the correct reactions needed to both create the desired molecule and isolate the desired chiral properties (i.e. fighting cancer cells).
The area of science (synthetic/organic chemistry) in which MacKay works has been in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies. However, the specific sub-field which the paper focuses on is a concept that needs to be worked on for a significantly longer time before it is used to create and synthesizes new molecules and compounds which would find their way from the drug store to our bathroom cabinets.
Synthetic chemists enjoy working in their medium because it gives them the opportunity to find ways to create complex molecules (such as taxol) and to create these complex molecules, reactions need to be developed to “take you one step at a time along the way.”
MacKay began working on the project before arriving at Elizabethtown College in 2007. When he arrived, Stephen Motika, Zachary Landis, and Margaret Kench began aiding in the research.
While MacKay admits to his probable inability to win a Noble Peace Prize while working at the College, “It doesn’t mean I can’t shoot for that kind of thing,” he said with a reflective smile, “I’m always going to try and do the best work here that I can.”
With the school’s relative small size and focus on undergraduate participation, one can see why MacKay and other professors here at Etown focus on helping students: “I want to train students how to think critically about science,” MacKay said.