Green Chemist Wei Zhang
The titles of Wei Zhang’s grant awards are quite a mouthful. Consider, for example, “Recyclable Fluorous Bifunctional Organocatalysts.” Or “Synthesis and Screening of Chemical Libraries for Discovery of Novel Bromodomain Inhibitors.”
Fortunately, Zhang, who has in the past has served as the director of the UMass Boston Center for Green Chemistry as well as its PhD program, patiently de-codes. He starts with basic concepts: “Chemistry is everywhere in life, but it can have side effects—pollution, toxicity, environmental impact. The goal of green chemistry is to make chemistry more environmentally benign.”
His work involves creating organic compounds that affect biological activity for specific uses, typically pharmaceutical. As a green organic chemist, he focuses not just on the products of chemical processes, but also on the processes themselves. Take the Grignard reaction. This chemical reaction, essential for producing various medicines, occurs via an unsafe chemical process. Last year, the American Chemical Society/Green Chemistry Institute awarded Zhang a grant to develop a greener way to run this reaction. This past June, he was invited to attend an international green chemistry conference in Washington DC to present his findings.
In projects like these, Zhang draws upon what he calls his “green chemistry toolkit,” a collection of environmentally safe processes he uses to synthesize organic compounds. When a green process doesn’t yet exist for his need, he develops one and adds it to his toolkit. He also familiarizes other chemists with green tools through myriad publications, lectures, and presentations, but acknowledges that “it’s hard to get people to drop the old tools. Or sometimes people want to use green tools but there aren’t enough, so we have to keep developing more.”
After completing his PhD in organic chemistry and his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh, Zhang joined the research team at DuPont Agricultural Products. Five years later a former professor of his tapped him to help start up a new venture, Fluorous Technologies, Inc. Zhang jumped at the chance. “In a big company,” he says, “you dig deep but very narrow. I’m more interdisciplinary.” Fluorous technology is an efficient and rapid method of combinatorial chemistry; the creation of chemical reactions to synthesize a vast number of compounds, called compound libraries.
Researchers need compound libraries to screen for molecules that interact in a particular way with a biological target, like a molecule that inhibits a lung cancer-causing enzyme. To discover that precise molecule requires screening hundreds of thousands of compounds. For this reason, pharmaceutical companies invested large sums in combinatorial technology a decade ago.
Over seven years, Zhang engaged in research and development, management, and customer relations, and was granted two patents. But paradigm shifts in the drug discovery model led to de-emphasis on the development of combinatorial chemistry, so he set his sights on academia. His logical choice: UMass Boston, home of John Warner and Paul Anantas, a groundbreaking Center for Green Chemistry, and the field’s first-in-the-nation PhD program.
Today, Zhang pursues fluorous technology for its green potential. “If you can make this process greener as well as efficient,” he says, “then it will be more attractive, because it’s sustainable.” His current research includes being Principal Investigator on two collaborative projects with Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center biologists under the university’s U54 grant from the National Institutes of Health. He is working to fulfill their research need for target molecules and compound libraries. A leading authority in fluorous and green chemistry, Zhang has published a total of 138 peer-reviewed papers, 49 of which have been published since he joined UMass Boston. And his co-edited book, Green Technologies for Organic Synthesis and Medicinal Technologies, was released in June 2012.
For him, chemistry’s attraction is its architectural aspect. “Just as an architect can be creative in designing buildings, I can use my creativity with organic synthesis,” he says. “The building blocks are the atoms that make up the molecules—just harder to see. You have to understand each building block, and have the skills to put them together through chemical reactions. That gives you a lot of space to create molecules for various uses.”
- The 3rd most published author in fluorous chemistry
- 138 Peer-reviewed publications including 3 Chemical Reviews and 3 Tetrahedron Reports
- Over 2,900 citations (H-Index 30), the top 1% of the cited authors for journals in the Life Sciences
- Over $4.5 million in external grants