Molecule makers

Haley Bridger, June 21st, 2011 | Filed under
  • Chemists Yikai Wang (left) and Damian Young (right)
    Photo by Nick Dua, Broad Communications

Damian Young’s laboratory at Harvard is a fun place to visit – if you can find it. The lab is housed in the depths of one of the interconnected buildings on Oxford Street, and getting to it requires navigating the twists and turns of many hallways. The lab itself is filled with all kinds of equipment for synthesizing chemical compounds – including an apparatus called a solvent dispensing system, which a chemist can use to decant aliquots of reagents the way a bartender might pour whatever is on tap. The lab is also equipped with plenty of chalkboards, which Damian and graduate student Yikai Wang use as they explain their ingenious work to develop and perfect reactions that they hope will enable the creation of small molecules to impact human health. (Watch more in the video below.)

Yikai and Damian spend their time at both the lab at Harvard and at the Broad Institute, where they collaborate with colleagues in the Chemical Biology Program and Platform. Yikai and Damian’s most recent work began by recognizing a limitation of a commonly used reaction. Damian had an idea for how to make it work better. “Yikai and I collaborated on an idea that I had many years ago,” says Damian, group leader of Diversity Oriented Synthesis at the Broad. “Yikai was really able to run with and make it happen.”

You can read about their work in a recent Broad news story here or read the paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society here.

“At the Broad Institute, our goal is to try to find molecules that can help us understand biology and even treat human disease,” says Yikai, a graduate student in the Broad’s Chemical Biology Program and Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. “But sometimes there are limitations in synthetic chemistry so we cannot make what we want. That’s why we started this project here.”

Damian and Yikai’s new methodology will give them more control over the kinds of molecules they produce. Damian says that one of the things he really enjoys about his job is that he can not only develop new ways of doing chemistry reactions, but also put those newly created molecules to the test. “One of the really unique aspects of working at the Broad as a chemist is that I get to develop new methodologies for making molecules and then see what those molecules do in various disease-related screens,” says Damian.

Damian and Yikai’s colleagues in the Broad’s Chemical Biology Platform test the institute’s unique library of small molecules to find potential compounds to treat infectious diseases like malaria, common diseases such as diabetes, and much more.

“It’s amazing to have the opportunity to work on such a wide array of human biology and know that fundamentally, the chemistry you do can impact all of these disease areas,” says Damian.

Damian Young explains how chemistry is like cooking.
Video courtesy of Nick Dua, Broad Communications.