Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 3, 1995

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

     "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

     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

     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

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