"Our particular research field is related to ways of making modern-day medicines," said Zhang, an organic chemist at Pennsylvania State University. His specialty is drugs that are chiral, or "handed"-- that is, structures that are identical except that one is the mirror image of the other, like a person's hands.
The difference can be critical in the body. 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.
Zhang has discovered ways to use small catalysts -- chemistry's construction workers -- to assemble one mirror image over the other. His catalysts use atoms of precious metals such as gold or platinum to insert hydrogen carefully at specific points within a starting material.
"If we don't have a good way to make these molecules, it quickly becomes costly," said Zhang. "This way we can not only accelerate drug discovery, which lowers prices, but we can also help generic drug makers manufacture established drugs more cheaply."
Nowhere is the need more obvious than with AIDS drugs, particularly protease inhibitors, which are chiral, he noted. Chiral drugs generated $147 billion last year -- more than one-third of total drug sales.
A native of central China, Zhang said he never dreamed as a farm boy in the rural countryside that he would grow up to be a chemistry professor with his own laboratory in the United States. "But I entered undergraduate school in the days after the Cultural Revolution, when we very much treasured opportunities to develop hard-core science," he said. "I always wanted to do something very fundamental, yet very practical -- something that could impact society in a beneficial way."
Zhang received his undergraduate degree from China's Wuhan University in 1982 and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1992. He is a member of the ACS organic chemistry division.
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 chairman of ACS. The award consists of a $5,000 prize and an unrestricted research grant of $40,000.