New ‘Heroes of Chemistry’ are pioneers in personalized medicine and decoding genes

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DENVER, Aug. 28, 2011 — Two scientists developed a new drug that helped pioneer the era of “personalized medicine” for cancer patients, an approach in which one-size-fits-all drugs yield to medicines customized to the genetic endowment of individual patients. Another scientist invented today’s predominant technology for genetic sequencing, deciphering the genetic blueprint in the DNA that makes up the genes of living things.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) honored all three today at the ACS’ 242nd National Meeting & Exposition, inducting pharmaceutical researchers Keith H. Gibson, Ph.D., Andrew J. Barker, Ph.D., and DNA sequencing pioneer George L. Trainor, Ph.D., into its scientific “hall of fame,” the ACS Heroes of Chemistry. Established in 1996, the ACS Heroes of Chemistry program recognizes scientists whose work in various fields of chemistry and chemical engineering has led to the successful innovation and development of commercial products.

“Heroes of Chemistry highlights the vital role of industrial chemical scientists and their companies in improving human welfare through successful commercial innovations and products,” said ACS President Nancy B. Jackson, Ph.D. “It celebrates the scientists behind discoveries that save lives, improve everyday life and revolutionize science.”

ACS is honoring Gibson and Barker for research at AstraZeneca, the global biopharmaceutical company, on the compound that became a new drug named Iressa (gefitinib)* for certain patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Barker currently works for AstraZeneca, and Gibson is retired from the company.

The most common type of lung cancer, NSCLC accounts for about 85 percent of the 1.6 million new cases of lung cancer that occur each year around the world. As of January 2011, Iressa was approved in 76 countries, and sales totaled $637 million in 2010.

Iressa helped pioneer personalized medicine for advanced NSCLC in the sense that it works specifically for NSCLC patients who have certain genetic mutations in their tumors. Michael J. Waring, Ph.D., a principal scientist at AstraZeneca, who nominated Gibson and Barker for the Heroes honor, noted that the discovery of Iressa paved the way for other drugs in the same chemical family. “Based on experiences with Iressa, AstraZeneca is leading a paradigm shift toward personalized therapy in NSCLC,” said Waring.

George L. Trainor, Ph.D., developed a new way to read, or sequence, the genetic code in the late 1980s, while he was in the Central Research Department of DuPont. Unlike the traditional Sanger method, Trainor’s fluorescence-tagged terminator strategy could easily be automated and did not require use of radioactive substances. Automation of DNA sequencing allowed scientists to analyze unprecedented amounts of DNA, making it possible to decode an entire human genome containing more than 3.4 billion base pairs (or rungs on the double helix) and 20,000–25,000 genes. The approach is now the dominant DNA sequencing method. Trainor is currently an independent pharmaceutical consultant, but developed the method while employed at DuPont.

DuPont sold Trainor’s DNA sequencing method under the name Genesis 2000™ DNA Analysis System and later licensed the technology to Applied Biosystems. The market for DNA sequencing methods is expected to exceed $1 billion this year.

“George Trainor’s seminal contribution to the automated sequencing of DNA is a terrific example of an interdisciplinary collaboration involving synthetic organic chemistry, molecular biology and chemical engineering,” said Pat N. Confalone, Ph.D., who nominated Trainor. “The sequencing of the human genome, enabled by this methodology, has offered the medical community new insights into diseases and has provided a wealth of new targets for the discovery of important new medicines by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.” Confalone is vice president, Global R&D, DuPont Crop Protection.

The 2011 Heroes of Chemistry will be honored tonight in an awards ceremony and dinner at The Ritz-Carlton, Denver. The ceremony includes a keynote speech by Greg Allgood, Ph.D., head of Procter & Gamble's Children's Safe Drinking Water Program.


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