Welch Award News Release
Welch Award recipient honored for breakthroughs in creating complex molecules to fight disease
HOUSTON, Oct. 22, 2012 – David A. Evans of Harvard University will be honored with the $300,000 Welch Award in Chemistry tonight at a black-tie dinner here to recognize his contributions to basic research that benefit humankind. Dr. Evans has been a pioneer in the field of designing and building complex molecules that are effective in fighting disease, including cancer and antibiotic therapies. The Houston-based foundation, one of the nation's oldest and largest sources of private funding for basic research in chemistry, presents the prestigious award annually.
“Dr. Evans has revolutionized the way scientists think about and carry out complex-molecule synthesis,” said Wilhelmina E. (Beth) Robertson, chair of The Welch Foundation. “This has opened the door to produce large quantities of beneficial compounds found in nature to battle disease, as well as to ensure ever-more targeted delivery of chemotherapeutics. As importantly, he has nurtured the development of some of our brightest chemical minds with more than 70 of his former students serving as mentors in academia.”
Dr. Evans and his laboratory have pioneered innovative new approaches to molecular design, creating new tools and techniques that have transformed the synthesis of complex organic structures. The organic chemist also has been responsible for replicating more than 50 bioactive molecules found in nature – most extremely complex – to enable their therapeutic use, including chemotherapies, antibiotics and AIDS drugs.
“I consider myself to be in the design and construction business, with a fascination for interesting architecture,” Dr. Evans says. “In the macroscopic world, if you’re building a particularly long bridge, for example, you may need to develop new design approaches and construction techniques to successfully span the river. I do the same thing at the molecular level. Anyone who enjoys architecture would enjoy our work.”
One of Dr. Evans’ most important contributions has been the discovery of methods that control the chirality, or handedness, of organic structures during their construction. Many molecules used in drug therapy are chiral. That is, they exist as a pair of mirror-image isomers called enantiomers, with different physiological properties.
The infamous thalidomide disaster highlights the need to understand these differences and control the chirality, or handedness, of drugs. Thalidomide was introduced in the 60’s as a mild sedative. In pregnant women, however, one of the mirror-image isomers caused severe birth defects. This tragedy forever altered the way drugs are developed and evaluated by the pharmaceutical industry and the Federal Drug Administration.
Dr. Evans’ work has led the way to understanding and controlling chirality in ever-more complex molecules. For close to four decades, he has focused on developing new reaction methods to achieve absolute stereocontrol in carbon-carbon bonds. Controlling the structure of molecules allows the scientist to identify the benefits of right- vs. left-handed carbon structures, and then to create the appropriate version. Most therapeutic compounds today are extremely complex with up to 25 asymmetrical centers, with each additional center increasing the complexity exponentially. While challenging to work with, these multiple centers provide drugs with higher selectivity, allowing more targeted delivery.
“There are few people who have made such important contributions to organic chemistry – and ultimately the world of medicine – as Dave Evans,” notes Marye Anne Fox, chair of the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board. “He has introduced innovative concepts and highly practical protocols that have served as the backbone of a staggering amount of research, in both academic and industrial laboratories. His work is characterized by flair, economy and impeccable originality. He belongs to that elite group of organic chemists who lead the way in both methods development and complex molecular synthesis.”
After graduating from Oberlin College, Dr. Evans earned his doctorate at California Institute of Technology. He served on the faculties of UCLA and CalTech before moving to Harvard in 1983 where he is the Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Chemistry and Research Professor. His some 300 published papers are highly cited and he is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Yamada Prize, Prelog Medal and Arthur C. Cope Award, among many others. Dr. Evans has been elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; named a Fellow, Royal Society of Chemistry; and Humboldt Senior Scientist. He received the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize for Contributions to Understand Education at Harvard in 2007. Currently a consultant with Amgen, he has served on the advisory boards of seven scientific journals.
Dr. Evans has been married for 50 years to wife Selena (Sally), a retired teacher. They have one daughter and two grandsons.
The Welch Foundation advances science through research and departmental grants, funding of endowed chairs, an annual chemical conference and support for other chemistry-related programs. In addition to the Welch Award, the Foundation annually bestows the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research to recognize the accomplishments of chemical scientists in Texas who are early in their research careers. Since its founding in 1954, Welch has contributed more than $716 million as part of its mission to support the basic chemical research that improves life.
For more information on the Foundation and a list of previous Welch Award recipients, please visit www.welch1.org.Printer Friendly