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Category → History of science

Burroughs-Wellcome Elion-Hitchings Building Open for Public Tours October 20th Only

I’m not an architect but I absolutely love quirky and creative buildings. During the eight years I lived in the foothills outside of Denver, I passed the clamshell-shaped home featured in Woody Allen’s 1973 movie, “Sleeper” – yes, the home with the Orgasmatron (a prop made from a cylindrical door like those used for research darkrooms).

For you youngsters who may not know what I’m talking about, here’s a two-minute movie clip that’s probably safe for work.

Well, from that era is another futuristic building designed by Paul Rudolph and completed in 1971 — then known as the Burroughs-Wellcome Headquarters Building in Research Triangle Park.

Click on the photo for information about the tour this Saturday, 20th October. Photograph reprinted courtesy of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina.

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Lefkowitz Nobel: “There’s a lot of love here”

How many of you could say this about your laboratory group?

In the hall outside the champagne reception for Bob Lefkowitz’s lab on Wednesday at Duke University Medical Center, I had a chance to catch up with Marti Delahunty, PhD. Delahunty is a research scientist in a connecting building but worked in the Lefkowitz group from 1998 until 2006.

This brief chat brings to mind Carmen Drahl’s post about one’s laboratory being your second family.

 

 
PIs, trainees, technicians, and administrators: Tell me if you’d be able to say the same about the environment of your laboratory.

 

HHMI and Duke Celebrate the Lefkowitz Chemistry Nobel

As discussed in my previous post, I took a personal day off from work yesterday to bask in the excitement of a university community celebrating a Nobel prize for one of its most beloved researchers, Dr. Robert “Bob” Lefkowitz, MD. He joined Duke in 1973 when, he says, “it was not the powerhouse it is today.”

Lefkowitz will share the prize with his former trainee, Brian Kobilka, MD, now at Stanford University.

I had the honor of joining his laboratory’s champagne celebration in the morning and the Duke University press conference in the early afternoon. (The full 47-minute press conference streamed live and is archived here at Duke.).

I live barely three miles from Duke and had no idea when or if I’d ever have the chance to be so close to such an event. The Lefkowitz prize is particularly meaningful to me as he is a biochemist physician-scientist who also considers himself a pharmacologist. So, I write this not so much as a journalist but rather — as Duke Research Communications Director Karl Leif Bates put it — a fan boy.

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Lefkowitz and Kobilka win 2012 Chemistry Nobel for GPCRs

Defending the Chemistry Nobel for “biology” – again.

I’m near-certain that this is the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry given to two MDs. (10:31 am EDT: I was wrong, as per commenter Jonny below. Peter Agre, MD, and Roderick MacKinnon, MD, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2003 for their work on aquaporins and other ion channels.)

Robert Lefkowitz, MD, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University Medical Center, and Brian Kobilka, MD, of Stanford University School of Medicine, will share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012. The award recognizes a lifetime of work, certainly for Lefkowitz, in elucidating the action of the central chemical signal transducers of the human body.

This is a chemistry prize, albeit a biological chemistry prize.

The prize is being given for discovering how the body’s most important chemicals communicate their own chemical signals from outside the cell to inside. Without G-protein-coupled receptors, or GPCRs, our hearts would not beat, our lungs would not expand and contract, and our brains would be unable to regulate much of everything that runs in our bodies.

Moreover, the ubiquity of GPCRs have over history breathed tremendous life and stimulated innovation in chemistry to synthesize tools to modulate these receptors and thereby relieve human suffering. Chemists should revel in this prize – without G-protein coupled receptors, many chemists would not have been employed for the last few decades.

But I do agree that a case could be made for this prize to be given in Physiology or Medicine, particularly since GPCRs are central to physiology, “from plants to man.”

More later.

Feel free to vent your spleen in the comments below.

But do note that Derek Lowe, medicinal chemist and grand master of the chemblogosphere, has already decreed, “[M]y fellow chemists, cheer the hell up already.”

Disclosure: I hold an Adjunct Associate Professor appointment in the Duke University School of Medicine, Department of Medicine.

 

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Gurdon and Yamanaka share Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012

British scientist John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka (MD, PhD!), a Japanese scientist now at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this morning,  ”for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.”

John B. Gurdon. Credit: nobelprize.org, Creative Commons Attri 2.0 license.

Briefly, Gurdon and colleagues showed that the genetic information from a mature, differentiated cell still had the ability to program an undifferentiated embryonic cell to develop into an adult organism. That is, an embryonic cell contains the chemical signals to use adult DNA to drive development of a new organism.

The work was done with the frog, Xenopus laevis, and the technique came to be known as “nuclear transfer.” In colloquial terms, this is “cloning.” Current press reports are citing Gurdon’s work as occurring in 1962 but studies appear to have been published in Nature as early as 1958.

Christen Brownlee composed a superb summary of nuclear transfer for the Classics section of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Gurdon’s work stemmed from 1952 experiments of Robert Briggs and Thomas J. King with another frog, Rana pipens. Briggs died in 1983 and King in 2000 and could not be recognized with the Nobel. This fact relieved the Nobel committee, in my opinion, from having to decide which scientist would have been awarded the potential third slot for the prize. (Addendum 7:18 am EDT): I suspect that some argument will arise in support of UW-Madison’s James A. Thomson for the third slot as the Science paper from his group came out concomitantly with Yamanaka’s Cell paper. 8:21 am: The Guardian’s Alok Jha just reminded me that I overlooked Takahashi and Yamanaka’s earlier Cell paper from 2006. However, C&EN’s Carmen Drahl is now reporting this 2001 TIME magazine cover with Thomson.)

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Visualizing Chemistry Education with Untamed Science

Well, I’m coming up on 10 days on my new job at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences working on science communications for our new wing, the Nature Research Center. Beyond my creative and uniformly brilliant co-workers, I’m blown away by how many remarkable people I’ve met from around the state and world by just being at the Museum.

Among those were the filmmakers from the visual science education operation, Untamed Science. Co-founders Rob Nelson and Jonas Stenstrom. I learned that I was very fortunate to get an audience with Jonas as he was visiting from Sweden where he coordinates the team’s international science education efforts. He first met Rob, a native Texan & Coloradan, while both were studying in Australia. Joining them was their local documentarian partner, the talented Michelle Lotker.

Fun, free, and scientifically accurate.

Untamed Science describe themselves as “a group of scientists and filmmakers that have united with one simple goal – communicate science in a fun way to the next generation.” Their portfolio of free video and text content covers the spectrum of biology, physics, chemistry, earth science and technology.

Their target audience began as middle-school students but many of the details are those that parents (yes, me) might not know. I had a fabulous time sitting with our nine-year-old daughter last night to go through about a dozen of their videos and podcasts. Bedtime was delayed significantly – thanks, folks.

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GSK Sells Off BC and Goody’s Powders

My friends, today is a dark day in the history of traditional, old-timey pharmacy in North Carolina.

According to Raleigh News & Observer reporter David Ranii, GlaxoSmithKline has sold their interest in two legendary analgesic powders and other over-the-counter products to Prestige Brands Holdings in Livingston, New York and Cody, Wyoming.

Cue the old Pace Picante advertisement about the competitor’s “Mexican” salsa made in New York City.

GSK even sold off Tagamet. Yes, Sir James Black’s cimetidine – the founding histamine H2 receptor antagonist for which Sir James shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Trudy Elion and George Hitchings.

Hell, they even sold Beano.

If you want to know what I’m talking about, seriously, please see my explainer from April on the rich North Carolina history of analgesic powders.

A shorter distillation of my post is this story at the North Carolina History Project.

The $660 million sales price will put $375 million directly in the hands of shareholders (*check TIAA-CREF mutual funds to see if I hold any $GSK).

Sorry, I can’t type anymore – I’ll be in mourning.

In fact, I think I need me a BC Powder.

NCCU Dinner with Discoverers: Chemist, Dr. Mansukh Wani

Dr. Mansukh Wani with NCCU pharmaceutical sciences master's students Edward Garner (left) and Adama Secka (right). Credit: DJ Kroll

The NCCU Eagles RISE program is a NIH/NIGMS research education program for which I serve as principal investigator at North Carolina Central University in Durham. When I moved to the Research Triangle area, I had the opportunity to work as a pharmacologist with the late Dr. Monroe Wall and Dr. Mansukh Wani, scientists who with colleagues discovered the anticancer compounds, taxol and camptothecin.

I first came to know of Dr. Wani while I was a graduate student in 1987 while attending a DNA topoisomerase chemotherapy conference at NYU in Manhattan. To be honest, I was too nervous to even introduce myself to this legend of natural products chemistry. Almost 25 years later, I am now blessed to call him a family friend. One of the other joys I have is sharing the now 86-year-old Dr. Wani and his story with my students. Here’s a recap of our visit with him as posted on our NCCU Eagles RISE blog:

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