Chemical biology news from across RSC Publishing.
Interview: Orvig's marvellous medicine
17 January 2008
Chris Orvig talks to May Copsey about his latest work in the treatment of diabetes and his love for teaching
Chris Orvig is a professor of medicinal inorganic chemistry at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Chris' research activities include the study of the roles of metal ions in the etiology, diagnosis, and therapy of disease. Chris is the new Chair of the Dalton Transactions editorial board and is on the advisory editorial board of Chemical Society Reviews.
What inspired you to become a chemist?
The main reason that I ended up with a chemistry major honours degree was a bit of a fluke. I knew the son of a chemistry professor at McGill University and I thought his course looked interesting, so I took it and ended up becoming a chemist. Most of my career has been a series of lucky accidents.
Why did you become a medicinal inorganic chemist?
I took a gap year and lived with friends in Toronto. I was planning to go to McGill University for a PhD. However, my friends persuaded me to apply to MIT and I got accepted. I went there thinking I was going to be physical chemist but I had a teaching assignment with Professor Alan Davison FRS, who was an inorganic chemist. He took me to the pub for a couple of beers and we started talking about his chemistry. It was so fascinating that by the end of day, I had switched from physical to inorganic chemistry and signed up to work for him. That day, thirty years ago, changed my life professionally.
Can you tell me about Professor Davison's chemistry?
He had a brand new project in 1977 to look at the chemistry of technetium. At that stage, even though 99mTc was being used in a number of diagnostic imaging agents, it was still relatively new. All the agents had been discovered by trial and error. Alan, as an organometallic chemist at the time, thought that it would be a brilliant idea to apply basic coordination chemistry principles to the design of new agents. From my PhD thesis came the N2S2 ligands that are now used in the clinic. We weren't savvy about patenting it and now there are a number of agents that use this ligand, simply because it's in the public domain.
Were your fellow researchers at MIT an inspiration?
Dick Schrock was an assistant professor and Ed Solomen, one of the world's most eminent bioinorganic chemists was an assistant professor. Ed tried to open up my eyes to the benefits of physical chemistry, as applied to bioinorganic systems. Mark Wrighton, who is now the Chancellor of Washington University, was the youngest full professor ever at MIT, at the age of 27. It was very good group of people to be around. All the inorganic professors were very interactive, very intelligent and full of fun. It was very competitive, though. I learned a very valuable lesson that I teach to my graduate students: you should never compare your degree with that of others. I also remind them that when they finish their PhDs, they will be different people. Hopefully my mentorship will have a little bit to do with that, but the research group environment will be the major player.
What are you currently working on?
We are exploring the chemistry of lanthanides as potential agents in bone-resorption disorders like osteoporosis. I also have a programme looking at metal binding agents in Alzheimer's disease, in particular targeting copper. We have a long standing interest in nuclear medicine, especially the chemistry of technetium and metal-containing positron agents such as gallium. The project that I'm probably best known for is the use of vanadium compounds for the treatment of diabetes. This project nearly died as a result of the stockmarket crash in the early 2000s, but has come alive again in the last six months. By chance, somebody in a company read a review I had written. They looked at their intellectual property and realised there was a perfect fit. Within about two months, the university had done a deal with them and the compounds are now in the second phase of clinical trials.
What inspired the diabetes project?
The Dean of pharmaceutical sciences at our university approached me with a reprint of a Science paper that he'd published. He thought vanadium compounds could be useful in the treatment of diabetes. His group didn't know how to make a vanadium compound so he asked me to design one. We had been working on oral uptake of a number of other metals in other projects so we had a ligand in mind: maltol - an FDA approved food additive. The Dean took me out for lunch and I wrote a compound down on a napkin. It's a very close variant of the compound which is now in human clinical trials.
You have a very strong teaching philosophy. Can you describe that?
What is the most rewarding thing about your career in chemistry?
Mentoring, without a doubt. The things that I am most proud of are the people that have been through my lab. I don't like to use the word 'trained' because often I learn as much from them as they do from me. I've been very fortunate in my career to have a superb group of graduate students and post-docs and they make me very proud.
What message do you have for a young scientist?
Work hard and play hard. Don't be afraid to experiment. If your supervisor can't give you some excellent reasons why an idea shouldn't work, then you should definitely try it. Most importantly, you never know when you are going to be right.
What would you be doing if you weren't a chemist?
Skiing and travelling. I spent most of my undergraduate career as a professional skier and I'm a card-carrying ski instructor. One of my favourite places in the world is my apartment in Whistler for skiing.
Chris Orvig's homepage
University of British Columbia, Canada
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Also of interest
New Chair of the Dalton Transactions Editorial Board appointed
26 November 2007
RSC Publishing is delighted to announce the appointment of Professor Chris Orvig as Dalton Transactions Editorial Board Chair.
10 October 2007
Lipophilic wrapping paper is helping lanthanides cross into cells and could lead to osteoporosis treatments.
Editorial: Lanthanide compounds for therapeutic and diagnostic applications
Katherine H. Thompson and Chris Orvig, Chem. Soc. Rev., 2006, 35, 499
Design of targeting ligands in medicinal inorganic chemistry
Tim Storr, Katherine H. Thompson and Chris Orvig, Chem. Soc. Rev., 2006, 35, 534