University of Houston (UH) chemist Jeremy May received a five-year, $600,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award to develop synthetic strategies to increase the efficiency and yields of chemical reactions. May’s work aims to improve the understanding of molecular reactions and the bonding of atoms, which could have an impact on the treatment of diseases such as cancer and malaria.
The grant is designed to fund new research on the development of reaction strategies that can form multiple molecular rings as a result of one single transformation, creating complex compounds, that can be developed in less time and with a higher yield, since chemical reactions are complex processes, which can be slow, wasteful and often require a sequence of 30 to 40 reactions.
“If we can develop chemical transformations that do more in each individual step, then that allows us to use a lot fewer reactions to make the end product,” says May, who specializes in synthetic organic chemistry at UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “I see similarities between my work and other increases in efficiency. In auto manufacturing, for instance, if you can do three welds at once, it’s going to be faster than if you do one weld at a time on a car frame.”
According to May’s previous research, the number of reaction decreases as the overall yield increases, since every step has a certain chemical yield. In this way, if the number of steps or reactions is cut in half, it more than doubles the yield, establishing a geometric and exponential progression.
This kind of reaction can easily transform from something “fairly simple” into something complex, and May is working on the interlinks of compounds with complex structures, believing that the understanding of the reaction strategy may not only be useful for disease treatment, but also for further studying these types of compounds.
“My main interest is in chemical reactivity – how do chemical bonds form, can we develop new catalysts or new transformations?” he said. “They are tools that can be applied later on, increasing our understanding of how molecules react and how atoms come together to form bonds. While we’re developing these new tools, we may be able to apply them to diseases and solve some problems.”
May is currently analyzing complex chemical compounds, in which biological activity can be found, in order to understand the role of these structures in disease management, such as in cancer and malaria. One of the obstacles for previous research was the lack of sufficient amounts of compounds for testing. To remedy this problem, May is creating the compounds in his lab and sharing them with the colleagues from the Texas Medical Center. Therefore, the process of synthesizing complex chemical structures can be sped up for scientists to increase the availability of the research.
“If they are looking to block the actions that help a cancer cell replicate, they can screen all the chemical compounds in the library to see if one shuts down the mode of action,” May said. “Our work won’t go directly into a clinic or directly tackle a disease, but we will kick off the chain of events,” he explained.
May’s grant is also going to be used in an educational activity with KIPP Sharpstown College Prep, a free, college-preparatory public school, for students between the fifth and eighth grade, from the Gulfton and Sharpstown neighborhoods of southwest Houston. Students will not only learn from May, but they will also receive a guided tour to his lab.