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Mercury Amalgam

The TEST Foundation Board of Directors


Boyd E. Haley, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEST Foundation
Professor and Chairman, Chemistry Department,
University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
E-mail: bhaley@altcorp.com

At the Crossroads of Chemistry and Biology


Every living thing can be reduced to chemicals. Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen—these chemical elements are the foundation for molecules that form the intricate, three-dimensional structures we know as DNA. Scientists at the University of Kentucky are focusing on the chemical roots of life in a new program designed to solve biological problems through chemistry.

Boyd Haley was one of the first scientists hired at the UK Markey Cancer Center and was a faculty member in the College of Pharmacy from 1985 to 1997.

While federal funds have dried up for traditional chemistry areas like weapons research, federal agencies and pharmaceutical firms are eager to fund biological chemistry, says Boyd Haley, chair of the chemistry department at UK. "The Cold War is over. We've lost federal funding to develop better war materials, so the focus of chemical researchers has switched to things like environmental toxins that affect biological systems, and sensors for medical diagnostics.

"What we're setting up right now is an undergraduate degree program—a degree in chemistry with an emphasis in biological chemistry," Haley says. "If you're a smart student, you'll realize that getting an undergraduate degree in biological chemistry will increase your chances of getting into and surviving medical, dental or veterinary school, because it just so happens that in those professional schools the major flunk-out course is biochemistry."

It's clear that this is a hot job market, Haley says. "Take a look at the number of want ads in the back of Science, the major magazine where companies advertise for research people. The majority of these jobs require biological chemistry expertise."

Before this program began in the chemistry department, the closest thing on the UK campus was a Ph.D. program in biochemistry through the College of Medicine. "The university needs all of these—undergraduate and graduate programs—to provide a top-notch education," Haley says. "In the Ph.D. program they zero in on medical applications, while we are doing a wide range of basic research. If you look at top 20 universities, they all have a biochemistry department and a chemistry department with a biological emphasis.

"Biological chemistry varies from biochemistry in that it usually involves application of 'heavy-duty' chemical techniques to biological problems such as using mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance," says Haley. He adds that an understanding of the various areas of chemistry, such as physical chemistry, and their application to biological problems is more heavily emphasized.

Biological chemistry was one of 11 strong research areas identified by UK as part of the Research Challenge Trust Fund (RCTF) initiative. Established by the 1997 Kentucky Postsecondary Education Act, one phase of RCTF includes $16 million to support new faculty, graduate students and staff in the selected areas.

The biological chemistry program received $3 million to renovate lab space and hire four research faculty and eight research assistants. The four new faculty, in addition to "five outstanding UK faculty" who have been conducting research in biological chemistry, are shaping a solid research and education enterprise, Haley says.

"Obviously, when you launch a new program, you hire new faculty to teach the courses," Haley says. In addition to teaching undergraduate courses in biological chemistry, each new faculty member will be responsible for developing one graduate-level course in his or her area of expertise.

Haley was one of the first scientists hired at the UK Markey Cancer Center and was a faculty member in the College of Pharmacy from 1985 to 1997. He joined the Department of Chemistry the following year as professor and chair. "I came to the chemistry department because I wanted to teach graduate students," Haley says. "The level of work I do requires people who know a lot of chemistry."

Haley says today's booming biological chemistry market is one result of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which enabled small businesses and not-for-profit organizations to retain title to innovations made under federally funded research programs. As a result, there was an explosion in the number of start-up biotech companies. "All of a sudden I can invent something, have the university patent it, and I'm allowed to take it and convert the new intellectual property into a business that will make money, create jobs and serve the public," Haley says.

"A large number of jobs available today are with companies that started out very small and are now large and have actually overtaken the old-fashioned pharmaceutical firms," he says. "It doesn't take a lot of money to start one of these companies—you find a protein that causes a disease, make an antibody to it, develop a simple Western blot test, and start selling your technology to the world."

Haley himself has transformed a technology developed in his lab into a thriving biotech company named Affinity Labeling Technologies Inc. (ALT). He co-founded ALT in 1998 with Curt Pendergrass, who received his Ph.D. in toxicology from UK in 1995 and worked as a postdoctoral fellow in Haley's lab for nearly four years.

Located on the UK campus in the Advanced Science and Technology Commercialization Center, known as ASTeCC, ALT develops, manufactures and markets nucleotide photoaffinity probes—radioactive compounds used in research and diagnosis of disease. When these photoprobes are exposed to ultraviolet light, they bind to the active site of the protein, allowing it to be permanently tagged for identification. ALT uses photoprobes to diagnose periodontal disease and test toxicity levels before and after tooth extraction, and is selling this technology to a worldwide market.

And just recently, German scientists at the University of Göttingen confirmed findings that Haley published in 1992 in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that proposed a diagnostic test for Alzheimer's disease. "UK owns a patent on this, and I hope to be able to make the test available as an aid for early Alzheimer's diagnosis," he says.

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