Townsend's Eclectic Approach To Chemistry Is License To Learn By Emil Venere You know Craig Townsend is serious about chemistry. His license plate reads ORGANIC. But, while his specialty is organic chemistry, he doesn't limit his lab to that discipline. The Hopkins chemist is now being recognized for pioneering an eclectic approach that combines expertise in various fields, achieving far more than would be possible by any one of the disciplines independently. Dr. Townsend is one of 10 chemists in the nation to receive the 1995 Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, a prestigious honor from the American Chemical Society. In announcing the award, which will be formally presented in August, the organization cited how his lab is using a multidisciplinary approach to study how certain antibiotics are produced in nature and to probe the workings of an anti-cancer compound. The way Dr. Townsend sees it, combining fields such as chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology in one lab was a natural progression, a step made more necessary by the increasing complexities of research and the growing kinship of related disciplines. "All the barriers between disciplines are essentially collapsing," said the 47-year-old organic chemist. "I view it all as a continuum." His lab blends the diverse skills of 19 scientists, incorporating specialties ranging from chemistry to genetics. But pursuing the eclectic approach has meant a constant path of learning for Dr. Townsend, as well. He has picked up a lot of biology along the way. "In academics you never stop going to school, literally and figuratively," said the chemistry professor, who came to Hopkins in 1976 at the age of 28. "You keep learning. You better keep learning, or the world will pass you by." He's been a major catalyst behind the Chemistry Department's modernization, applying persistence and grantsmanship to acquire essential high-tech equipment. And he worked hard to promote the renovation of a deteriorating Remsen Hall. "He's been very concerned about the direction of the department as a whole and trying to make this a better place," said department chairman David E. Draper. "The instrumentation that's here is mainly due to his efforts." The list of modern equipment includes a mass spectrometer, used to analyze chemical composition, and three nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, devices that produce precise images of molecular structures so that scientists can analyze minute biochemical reactions. And, thanks in part to Dr. Townsend's stewardship, as chairman of the renovation committee, the department now has a fitting facility in which to house its modern equipment. It took years of lobbying, punctuated by frustrating setbacks, before Remsen was renovated. The work was completed in December 1993. "Craig is a person who pays a lot of attention to details," Dr. Draper said. "And that was really helpful during the renovation, right down to the style of the doorknobs and the stain on the wood. That really made the project work. I don't quite know where he got all of the energy to do that." The 70-year-old Remsen Hall was plagued by serious problems--lab hoods that didn't work, labs without sufficient space, the lack of central air conditioning, badly calcified water pipes, inadequate electrical power and just a general deterioration of the building itself. "Every square inch saw some level of renovation," Dr. Townsend said. "The building was completely stripped." The new Remsen was well worth its $15 million price tag, considering how extensive the project was, he said. "This is going to be here for a long time, and it is a much improved place for everyone to work," he said. But Dr. Townsend's administrative contributions might be seen as just another manifestation of his rigorous scientific standards. Not only does he people his lab with an impressively diverse range of researchers, he lives up to those standards, said chemistry professor Gary Posner, a colleague for 20 years. "He himself is an extraordinarily broadly knowledgeable scientist," Dr. Posner said. "He's unusual in the breadth of his interests and in the rigor with which he designs and interprets experiments." Dr. Townsend's research group is using that broad approach in attempts to learn how microorganisms make beta-lactam antibiotics, whose most famous members are penicillin and cephalosporin. The goal is to isolate the genes that encode specific proteins to carry out a complex series of steps the organisms use to make these drugs. By learning how the antibiotics are synthesized in nature, scientists might one day learn how to duplicate that process and modify it to make improved agents. Using a similar approach, scientists are studying the way a cancer-causing chemical called aflatoxin is produced in nature. The chemical appears in many foods, notably peanut butter. Dr. Townsend also is using a multidisciplinary method to analyze the workings of a powerful anti-cancer drug called caliche-amicin. The drug, one of a family of compounds called diynene anti-tumor antibiotics, is produced by a bacterium called micromonospora. Researchers are trying to understand the chemistry that enables the drug to destroy a cell's DNA. Dr. Townsend, along with chemistry professor Thomas Tullius, has received a joint grant from the National Institutes of Health to study these anti-tumor compounds. Biochemists in the pharmaceutical industry are designing antibodies that might work as molecular "Trojan horses." Once absorbed by cancer cells, drug molecules attached to these antibodies could be released inside cancer cells and attack their DNA. "The idea is to have an antibody designed to be much more selective for cancer cells than for normal cells," Dr. Townsend said.
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