Visionary scientist links chemistry and business

In the future, the drugs used to treat AIDS will be moved across the previously impermeable cellular membrane by molecular agents acting as transporter molecules. These molecular taxicabs will also be used to deliver chemotherapy agents to cancer patients in a customized, patient-specific treatment. Molecular innovations will result in quantum computers that will run on DNA wiring. 

Left: Paul Wender

These and many other future innovations were part of the wonders revealed during the inaugural Ernest C. Mercier lecture in Entrepreneurial Chemistry. The lecture was delivered by Professor Paul Wender of Stanford University on Oct. 27 to a capacity crowd in the Underground’s Contact Room at the Keele campus.

Wender, a global leader in molecular chemistry and designer molecules, is at the forefront of the molecular revolution. His own work has led to development of new strategies for the delivery of drugs and probes into cells and tissues. As he began his lecture, he highlighted that innovations in drug delivery, DNA wired computers and customized chemotherapy agents would not be possible without the curiosity of chemists, their ability to observe a phenomenon and translate that observation into useable knowledge.

The Stanford Bergstrom Professor of Chemistry outlined the kinds of questions that entrepreneurial chemists ask. “What makes Teflon stick to the pan? Inquiring minds want to know that fact,” said Wender. “What makes someone eat another taco chip dipped in extremely hot salsa after they have experienced the painful burn of the first dip?” He then illustrated how entrepreneurs have used Teflon, which has a traditional use in cooking pots, to coat pants to make them stain resistant, and how inquiring scientists isolated capsaicin, the pungent agent in chili peppers. 

Observing the repeat torture engaged by lovers of  “suicide-hot” salsa, scientists thought that perhaps there was something in the hot salsa that fooled the sense of taste in an anesthetic effect, allowing individuals to continue to eat hot salsa. “Capsaicin, as it turns out, is a delayed analgesic which controls the sense of heat and cold. It creates an irritant, the heat, and then it dulls the sense. The knowledge of capsaicin’s activity is now used in an ointment to treat arthritic pain. You rub it on the joint experiencing the pain to dull the pain. This is a good example of a chemical discovery that has translated into a business.”

Entrepreneurial chemistry has made it possible to make new and improved compounds, said Wender. “We have materials that have memories and these materials remember their original state. That means if we alter the form of the material, it can return to its original state and this has great possibilities for biomedical materials including stitches that tighten over a wound and then loosen as it heals,” he said. “This innovation also has great potential for self healing fenders. You get into an accident, you could go home and apply some heat to the dent and your fender would return to normal. The possibilities are endless.

“Organic materials derived from chemistry include other innovations in computer and television screens, wearable computers and ultra-thin materials with great strength. Quantum computing will soon be made possible through molecular innovations or DNA wiring. Chemists are also working to improve senses at the molecular level. We can now create chemical entities that detect molecules. These designed ‘molecular noses’ recognize other molecules; they are used in packaging to spot decay in food and they are being used to detect mines in mine fields.

“Chemistry is also being used to create prosthetic devices that can convey a sense of touch to the person using the prosthesis through a molecular action. Blindness is being reversed at the molecular level to allow people to see through photoreceptor molecules,” said Wender.

Right: From left, Gillian Wu, dean of the faculty of science & engineering; York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden; Professor Paul Wender; and Eileen Mercier

The innovations don’t stop. Designer chemotherapeutic agents are now being developed that transport wonder drugs like Taxol (used in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer) into cancer cells. The cell membrane, explained Wender, is a complicated barrier for chemical compounds to navigate because its exterior is attractive to water and the interior is oil-like and repels water. Drugs like Taxol, which are insoluble in water, are assisted through the exterior membrane by a water-soluble transporter molecule. Once inside, the drug is able to get to work, greatly increasing its efficiency. “This is called adaptive translocation,” said Wender. Its discovery has led to $14-million in business.

Other innovations outlined by the Stanford chemist include designer drugs. Citing the wonder drug Bryostatin which comes from an organism in the ocean, Wender outlined the compound’s tremendous cancer fighting potential because it makes cells more receptive to chemotherapeutic drugs. “An eight-week dose is just 1.2 milligrams,” said Wender. “However to it takes 14 tons of the organism to create just 18 grams of the compound.

“Chemists, seeing the potential of the compound, were able to synthesize it, but it required 70 steps,” said Wender. “This was too complicated and expensive.”

Wender and his company CellGate looked at how the natural product worked and broke it down into a simpler compound. The process created a designer molecule called Bryolog, a compound which works better than the original Bryostatin molecule, resulting in improved efficiency for chemotherapy and better results for patients receiving the treatment.

All of the wonders that Wender outlined would not have been possible, he said, without the ability of curious scientists to observe an interesting phenomena, understand it and create an innovation around that phenomena. He encouraged York University to continue to cultivate innovation and curiosity, promote the investigative, risk-taking activities of students, graduates and faculty members.

The lecture, the first in a continuing series, celebrated the memory of Ernest C. Mercier, husband of Eileen Mercier, a York alumna (MBA ’77) and a member of the Board of Governors of York University. Mercier established the lecture series in her late husband’s name to highlight the bridges between the academic and entrepreneurial worlds. In her opening remarks, she talked about her husband’s love of learning. “Ernest received what he would describe as a classical education from the University of Glasgow,” she said. “He believed the benefits of discipline and analytical thinking, which his engineering education provided, were basic to understanding the cause-and-effect laws of business.”

Mercier recounted how her husband decided to pursue a career in business during his recovery from burns he received in a laboratory accident he experienced early in his career. “He decided that he should probably stay away from lab work – for his and everyone else’s own good,” she chuckled. Her husband then pursued a business career, relying on his powers of analysis and observation he honed in the lab. Mercier encountered great success both professionally and personally. The father of five, Mercier built a successful career with Monsanto in Toronto and then with Chemcell in Montreal, before embarking on a 23-year career with the Toronto-Dominion Bank in Toronto, retiring in 1993 as executive vice-president, corporate and investment banking.