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Cancer Drug Inventor Donates $1M for Student/Faculty Research

By Vige Barrie  |  Contact Vige Barrie 315-859-4623
Posted December 31, 2008
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The inventor of one of the world's most effective anti-cancer drugs who became fascinated with chemistry as a student at Hamilton has, with his wife, donated $1 million to establish an endowed fund for chemistry research at the College.

Edward C. Taylor '46 and his wife Virginia have established The Edward and Virginia Taylor Fund for Student/Faculty Research in Chemistry, a $1 million fund to inspire students interested in chemical research and to facilitate their work with outstanding faculty. As part of the Excelsior Campaign, the fund will offer students the opportunity to pursue research in organic chemistry, biochemistry, physical chemistry and other divisions of chemical research beginning in the summer of 2009.

"I wanted my gift to go to chemistry for whatever purpose seemed appropriate. Research is the ideal way to become fascinated with chemistry, and summer programs are especially great for stimulating a student's interest," Taylor explained.

It was in his first semester at Hamilton that a flip of a coin and a seemingly insignificant course selection led to great professional success and satisfaction for Taylor. When he arrived on campus in 1942 to study in the wartime accelerated program, he chose chemistry, by way of that coin toss, rather than biology to fulfill a science requirement. "I fell for the subject on the first day," he recalled. His professor, Dick Sutherland, was "extraordinary, the best teacher I have ever had. He took me under his wing, and I became fascinated from day one. He practically tutored me."

More than 60 years later, the student who came to Hamilton with dreams of becoming a writer is professor emeritus of chemistry at Princeton University and the inventor of one of the most successful cancer drugs in the world. "I owe my lifelong fascination with chemistry to Hamilton which is why I gave my gift to the chemistry department," he explained.

In discussing his love of chemistry, Taylor had this message for today's Hamilton students. "The reason you are going to a liberal arts institution is to take advantage of the variety it offers. Don't base your course selection on your prior limited experience. Spread your wings. Experiment! Other vistas will open if you have an open mind."

Another Hamilton chemistry professor who influenced Taylor's academic direction was Asa McKinney who had earned his Ph.D. at Cornell. When Taylor exhausted the chemistry courses at Hamilton, he transferred to Cornell. "My experience at Cornell would have been different if I had gone there directly. Hamilton was a totally different equation. I was in a class of five at Hamilton and a class of hundreds at Cornell. At Hamilton, I had the experience of practically being tutored by faculty willing to spend time with me one on one."

Taylor flourished at Cornell, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in chemistry. Cornell was also where Taylor met his wife Virginia to whom he has been married for 62 years.

As Taylor began to consider a research topic in organic chemistry for his doctorate, he happened on an article in Science about a compound that had been isolated from human liver and, strangely enough, was found to be necessary for the growth of a number of microorganisms. Furthermore, it possessed as its central core a very unusual bicyclic ring system that had only been seen before as pigments in the wings of butterflies. Fascinated by this bizarre coincidence, Taylor devoted his Ph.D. thesis to researching the origins, synthesis, biological significance and properties of these compounds.

In 1948, the same researchers who had first isolated the compound from human liver determined that a slight modification of the compound's chemical structure resulted in a new compound that inhibited the growth of microorganisms; in other words, they had discovered a new antibacterial agent. The same compound was found by others to bring remissions in acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children.

All of this preliminary work led to critical questions of why an antibacterial compound, still related in structure to the pigments in butterfly wings and to the mysterious growth factor from human liver, could be both extremely toxic and capable of inhibiting the growth of tumors. [The compound from human liver, now called folic acid, was later recognized as essential for every form of life because it is required for the biosynthesis of DNA, RNA and a number of amino acids, and hence proteins.] The antibacterial compound was found to inhibit DNA biosynthesis, but unfortunately in normal cells as well as in tumor cells. It was at this point that Taylor reengaged in the study of the compound that could cause cancer to go into remission, but that also killed healthy body cells. He discovered a compound that could effectively inhibit the growth of tumors with reduced effects on healthy normal cells and that appeared to operate by a different mechanism.

Taylor's Princeton lab didn't have the facilities to transform the compound he had synthesized into an effective drug, so he asked the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co. for assistance. The company analyzed the compound and determined that it was 95 to 100 percent effective on every tumor on which it was tested.

In 1985 a formal collaboration began between Princeton and Eli Lilly with the objective of exploring this promising new area in depth. Many hundreds of new compounds were prepared and examined. Finally, Taylor came up with a new compound that appeared to be extraordinarily promising, and after 12 years of extensive efforts by Lilly, this compound became the new cancer drug Alimta.

"The compound that became Alimta would still be in a bottle on my shelf in Princeton if it hadn't been for all the work Lilly put into developing it through some 12 years of testing. The amount of effort, time and money required to carry a compound through the myriad of tests required - just a few of which are metabolism, distribution and excretion studies; extensive examination of possible side effects, including toxicity; mechanism of action, interactions with other drugs and studies of drug-drug combinations - makes a story in itself," explains Taylor.

The drug has now been on the market for four and a half years, and already stands as the most successful new cancer drug, in terms of sales, in the history of the pharmaceutical industry. It is approved in 92 countries, including the United States, for both first-line and second-line lung cancer, and is the only drug approved for the treatment of mesothelioma. It is in extensive clinical trials for breast, head, neck and thyroid cancer.

The man who began college as a lover of the written word with dreams of becoming a writer and poet explained his passion for chemistry this way: "Organic chemistry has grace and beauty, something related in a way to music. There is something fundamentally artistic that gives appeal to organic chemistry. It was never difficult for me."

Serendipity and a coin flip introduced Taylor to this unlikely art form, and many years of dedicated and intense work led him to a life-saving discovery. Beginning in 2009, his gift will offer students the opportunity to follow a similar path.

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