"I started off with the idea to explore new strategies in chemical synthesis," began Panek, an organic chemist at Boston University. "There are existing methods out there, but I had the idea of assembling a tool kit of complementary compounds and ways to put them together into complex molecules."
The molecules Panek most wants to build are those scientists can use to study or produce pharmaceutical candidates. The prospect is a tricky one, and not only because pharmaceuticals are intricate assemblies. They also usually come in two forms, structures that are identical except one mirrors the other, like a person's hand.
The differences can be critical. For example, one form of naproxen (marketed as Alleve) reduces pain; its mirror image is toxic to the liver and thus cannot be included in the drug.
Panek and his research team have discovered a process that leads to an almost pure form of "handed" tetrahydropyridine, a component found in many drugs -- HIV protease inhibitors and blood thinning agents -- as well as in nature, such as the skin of poisonous jungle frogs.
His starting materials contain carbon bonded to silicon, a combination whose unusual chemical properties can control a reaction's three-dimensional orientation. "Now we're trying to expand our tool kit and its usefulness for making complex structures," Panek said.
The organic chemist said he became interested in science to try to understand how things work. "It was in high school when I really started getting interested in how processes come together -- particularly using chemistry to study biological processes," he said. "That's why I ended up in medicinal chemistry."
Panek received an undergraduate degree from the State University of New York, Buffalo, in 1979 and a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in 1984. He is a member of the ACS divisions of organic and medicinal chemistry.
The ACS Board of Directors established the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award in 1984 to recognize and encourage excellence in organic chemistry in the tradition of Cope, an organic chemist and former ACS chairman. The award consists of a $5,000 prize and an unrestricted research grant of $40,000.