Asst. Prof. Scott Miller (Chemistry) and graduate assistant Gregory Copeland figured out a way to pinpoint catalysts at work in a chemical reaction using fluorescent sensors that glow when a catalyst is active. The breakthrough is expected to eliminate the need for extensive testing to find the best catalysts, thereby making the synthesis of new drugs more efficient and less expensive.
Asst. Prof. Scott Miller (left) with graduate assistant Gregory Copeland: "Hopefully this technique will accelerate the discovery process and help lots of people," said Miller. (Justin Knight photo)
Catalysts, compounds that facilitate reactions in other chemicals, are central to the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, explained Miller, but their discovery traditionally has been a difficult and time-consuming process.
"You would make a new catalyst and test it, make a new catalyst and test it," he said. "It was very much trial and error."
Miller and Copeland came up with a way of screening thousands of catalysts in a chemical reaction using tiny plastic beads smaller than the head of a pin. A catalyst was attached to each bead, which was simultaneously attached to a fluorescent sensor that would light if the catalyst was working.
"If it lights up a lot, it's a good catalyst," said Miller, who said the stronger the catalytic reaction, the more light is given off by beads glowing like so many fireflies.
The two researchers described the procedure in the Journal of the American Chemical Society , and have since been praised by colleagues who have hailed the glowing-bead approach as a significant advance.
"It's getting a lot of attention, but it's quite simple," said Miller. "Hopefully this technique will accelerate the discovery process and help lots of people.
"Greg and I spend a lot of time in the lab throwing out ideas. This is one that happened to work," he said. "Working with students like Greg is the thrill, and is what I got into this for."
Copeland's talent has been recognized by the American Chemical Society, which recently selected him for one of only 20 organic chemistry graduate fellowships it presented this year.
The achievement is the latest distinction for Miller, who since joining the Boston College faculty three years ago has won a prestigious Cottrel Scholar Award and the College of Arts and Sciences' Distinguished Junior Faculty Member Award.
Miller's research into reactive molecules has focused on the design of new synthetic catalysts that rival natural enzymes.
"I love the 'what-if?' business," said Miller. "It's a great way to be an adult and still do what you did as a little kid, when you would take a magnifying glass and focus the light on something."
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