To Meet Industry Demand, UB Offers Nation’s First Academic Course in Combinatorial Chemistry

Release Date: December 15, 2000 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- University scientists are fond of saying that the students they teach benefit from the research they do since research requires professors to stay current in their fields.

Just how current varies, of course, from professor to professor.

At the University at Buffalo, one professor's research led him to develop and teach this semester the world's first academic course in a new technique called combinatorial chemistry that has taken the pharmaceutical industry by storm.

Combinatorial chemistry is a chemical-synthesis technique where hundreds or even thousands of new chemical compounds are synthesized at once. Compared to traditional methods, it allows medicinal chemists to discover new drugs at what seems like warp speed.

That kind of speed is particularly important, say scientists, in light of the many new drug targets envisioned now that the human genome has been sequenced.

But a major stumbling block -- the lack of chemists trained to perform the technique -- is preventing companies from fully exploiting it.

According to David Hangauer, Ph.D., professor of medicinal chemistry in the UB Department of Chemistry, the technique is so new that most chemists learn it on the job, and few academic scientists are familiar enough with it to teach a whole course.

Hangauer came to know that from the research he was doing with some key companies.

"Throughout the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that there just aren't enough chemists trained in combinatorial chemistry," said Hangauer, who worked at Merck & Co. for 10 years prior to joining UB.

"I know of one major pharmaceutical firm that actually built a new building to fill with people who could do combinatorial chemistry and they just couldn't hire enough skilled people," he said.

Another major firm had begun its own in-house tutorial session for its chemists, but that turned out to be an extremely expensive proposition, as well as a temporary drag on company productivity.

"Clearly, it was time for academia to start turning out chemistry graduates with these skills," said Hangauer.

But an intensive search on the Web and conversations with various colleagues in industry and at universities revealed that there weren't any courses out there in combinatorial chemistry.

"Even institutions that had organized their own research centers in combinatorial chemistry had not opted to start teaching courses in it," he said.

So Hangauer, who describes himself as particularly interested in the synergies between research and teaching, started his own.

Because the course is truly groundbreaking, the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences awarded to Hangauer a $50,000 grant for the laboratory portion of it. An additional $15,000 in matching funds then was provided by UB's Office of the Provost.

According to the terms of Hangauer's Dreyfus grant, he is required to disseminate information on the course to other faculty through articles in the Journal of Chemical Education and through extensive posting of course material on the Web. The aim: to encourage other universities to begin teaching similar courses.

At UB, both undergraduate and graduate sections quickly filled to capacity.

"Demand for the course is as high as we can handle," said Hangauer, who noted that he and other UB faculty members have several research agreements in place with pharmaceutical and biotech companies where they are using the technique to develop libraries of new compounds.

"As the need accelerates, both undergraduates and graduate students at UB that have had both the lecture course and the lab in combinatorial chemistry should be very attractive potential employees for the pharmaceutical and biotech industries," he said.

A related course, "Structure-based Design of Ligands and Combinatorial Libraries," that Hangauer teaches provides an intensive theoretical foundation in combinatorial chemistry. It, too, is believed to be the first offered by an academic institution.

"The two courses go hand-in-hand," said Hangauer. "The first teaches you how to design the combinatorial libraries, while the second teaches you how to synthesize the libraries."

The availability of these courses at UB could translate into regional economic benefits for Western New York as well.

"We hope that by offering these courses to our students and in developing a locally trained workforce with this unique set of skills, Western New York will become an even-more-attractive location for pharmaceutical and biotech startups," Hangauer said.

The availability of these courses at UB in addition to a rapidly growing research program in combinatorial chemistry also has put the university in a strong position as it competes for state and federal dollars allocated to exploit the new information revealed by the human genome project and other advances in molecular and structural biology.

And, in a related move, UB has moved its medicinal chemistry division, formerly part of the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, into the Department of Chemistry in UB's College of Arts and Sciences as a way to strengthen connections with researchers doing basic chemistry.

"UB is the first university in the U.S. to establish a formal medicinal chemistry division in its department of chemistry," said Hangauer.

He noted that throughout the nation, more and more chemistry faculty members are conducting medicinal chemistry research but UB is the only one so far to have formalized that trend.

For more information on the combinatorial chemistry initiative at UB, go to

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