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The importance of good chemistry

Concordia researchers share their passion for all things chemical for the International Year of Chemistry.
March 21, 2011
By Christine Zeindler
Source: Concordia Journal

“From making bread to ironing a cotton T-shirt, many of life’s simple routines can be explained through chemistry,” says Rafik Naccache, a doctoral student in Concordia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
“From making bread to ironing a cotton T-shirt, many of life’s simple routines can be explained through chemistry,” says Rafik Naccache, a doctoral student in Concordia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

With the launch of the International Year of Chemistry, designated by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), it seemed timely to ask a number of Concordia chemists to share their insights.

“The old slogan of ‘better living through chemistry’ applies more today than ever,” says John Capobianco, Concordia University Research Chair in Nanoscience (Tier 1). “There is chemistry all around us, including those items we take for granted, such as our shampoo or our CDs.”

Spotlight on cancer therapy
As a nanochemist, Capobianco is exploring how to use nanoparticles to detect, image and treat cancers through the use of light. The first step in the process is to bind nanoparticles to the cancer cell.

“Once bound, we can see the cancer cell by probing the nanoparticles with a laser, which will generate a visible light signal,” he explains. “The next step is to use this light to activate a photodynamic drug – to kill the cell.”

Although trained as an inorganic chemist, a branch of chemistry concerned with the properties and behaviour of compounds not containing carbon, much of Capobianco’s research combines chemistry and biology.

According to Joanne Turnbull, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, one of the most interesting developments in the last two decades is the emergence of new approaches and techniques that allow chemistry to interface with biology. “We are now really seeing where we can broaden the applications of chemistry,” she says.

The department focuses on the structure of substances and their reactions, as well as those events that occur in living cells. Although traditional subdivisions including physical and inorganic chemistry are included in the hierarchy, new interdisciplinary subdivisions have emerged, including bioinorganic chemistry and nanochemistry.

Antimicrobials – A burgeoning field
New antimicrobial therapies studied in the laboratory of Christine DeWolf demonstrate the potential benefits of combining chemical and biological knowledge. DeWolf, an associate professor who specializes in surface chemistry, examines lipid (or fat) organization in biological membranes, such as those surrounding bacteria cells. Her team studies how small peptides (short chains of amino acids) can target and disrupt these membranes and thereby kill harmful cells.

“Drug resistance is on the rise and becoming a major problem,” she says. “We are therefore trying to target a whole new class of antibiotics that act differently. We are hopeful that the bacteria will not be able to develop resistance as quickly.”

On target by manipulating DNA

Drug resistance of a different nature is the focus of Christopher Wilds, a bioorganic chemist and Canada Research Chair in Biological Chemistry.

By mimicking the damage that occurs to DNA – via environmental factors or by chemotherapy – his goal is to determine how damaged DNA is repaired.

“Some chemotherapy works by damaging the cancer cell’s DNA,” he says. “Yet some patients become resistant to treatment because they have the capacity to reverse that damage. Thus the drug is no longer effective. If we understand how the DNA gets repaired, maybe we can come up with more effective drugs.”

The right chemistry

For most of these researchers, the chemistry bug bit early and hasn’t let go. “I was drawn to chemistry early on. It was something that I understood and that made sense to me,” says DeWolf.

“Because Concordia offers a co-op program, chemistry was something that became real, not just something that is done in a student lab and taught with textbooks,” says Wilds, who earned his undergraduate degree here. “I learned theory in the classroom and then I would be experimenting on the bench, playing around with chemicals and learning new things. I really enjoyed it.”

“I like chemistry because, in the end, I can actually make something – a compound that may find some use,” says Capobianco.

“To gain an understanding and appreciate everything around us, we need to become more familiar with chemistry,” concludes PhD candidate Naccache.

That goal has led Naccache on a 15-year chemistry journey: from CEGEP to undergraduate studies and working in industry to finally embarking on a research career. “I have never looked back.”

Related links:
•    Concordia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
•    UNESCO’s International Year of Chemistry

Concordia’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department affiliations:
•    The Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics
•    The Centre for Research in Molecular Modeling
•    The Centre for Biological Applications of Mass Spectrometry
•    The NanoScience Group
•    The BIOFINS platform for the study of biomolecular function, interactions and structure


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