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Ronald Breslow Awarded 2003 Welch Award in Chemistry for His Lifetime Achievements

By Caroline Ladhani

Ronald Breslow

A Columbia chemistry professor has won the Welch Award in Chemistry, sometimes called the "American Nobel," for important scientific breakthroughs achieved during his nearly 50 years of academic research at Columbia.

Ronald Breslow, the Samuel Latham Mitchill Professor of Chemistry and University Professor, was presented with a gold medallion and $300,000 recently by the Welch Foundation at a black-tie ceremony in Houston, Texas, where the foundation is headquartered. The award recognizes lifetime achievements in basic chemical research that make a significant contribution to humanity.

In Breslow's case, the award recognizes and applauds his important breakthroughs in cancer research and other work, including discovery early in his career of the natural molecular inner workings of vitamin B1 and a major finding in a theory on aromatic chemistry. He is regarded as a pioneer in biomimetic chemistry, a method of scientific inquiry that involves mimicking the laws of nature to create new synthetic compounds. Breslow has been instrumental in creating some 1,000 new synthetic chemical compounds, among these SAHA, that fight cancer.

Some of these compounds may be effective at stopping the growth of cancer cells. SAHA, for instance, targets tumor cells, which do not to fully mature but rather continuously divide. The compound forces the juvenile tumor cells to "grow up," or mature into stable cells that then stop dividing. The discovery is currently undergoing clinical trials at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

"In biomimetic chemistry we take what we have observed in nature and apply its principles to the invention of novel synthetic compounds that can achieve the same goals," said Breslow. "As an analogy, we did not simply make larger versions of birds when we invented airplanes, but we did take the idea of the wing from nature, and then used the aerodynamic principles in our own way to build a jumbo jet."

Breslow has written more than 400 published articles and three books: "Organic Reaction Mechanisms," "How Enzymes Work," and "Beyond the Molecular Frontier." His many honors include the prestigious National Medal of Science, awarded to him in 1991, the American Chemical Society Bader Award in Bioorganic or Bioinorganic Chemistry, the New York City Mayor's Award in Science, the American Chemical Society Priestley Medal, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences, the Columbia Alumni Association Great Teacher Award, the British Chemical Society Centenary Medal, and the American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry. He is also a past president of the American Chemical Society and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

He is the third Columbia professor to win the Welch Award, joining Gilbert Stork, Higgins Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, who won in 1993, and Koji Nakanishi, Centennial Professor of Chemistry, who won in 1996.

"The goal of biomimetic chemistry is a large one -- learn how to imitate the chemistry of life but using our own new chemistry," said Breslow. "And that goal will not have been completely reached until we can make artificial cells that have at least some of the properties of life itself."

Published: Nov 20, 2003
Last modified: Nov 19, 2003

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