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Jon Shapiro ’17 Studies Chemical Reactions With Biological Activity


This summer, Jon Shapiro ’17 is working with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Max Majireck to explore molecules with potential, biological application. Shapiro hopes not only to create such a molecule, but he also hopes to develop an understanding of how best to create it.

“There are basically two parts to this research,” said Shapiro, explaining, “The first part is studying chemistry. So, learning about new chemical reactions that haven’t been done before.” Specifically, Shapiro is studying chemical reactions that the Majireck team theorizes could have potential biological activity. These molecules, termed “bioactive,” are simply those that affect a living system, such as the cells of the human body. There are innumerable bioactive compounds on earth, but some have more noticeably profound effects on us, such as the caffeine in your coffee or the alcohol in your beer.

Because bioactive molecules have the propensity to impact our cells, researchers are interested in compiling what Shapiro refers to as a “chemical library” to organize what is known about the molecules. This library could be used to help prioritize efforts for useful drug development in the future. This summer, Shapiro is working on some of the earliest stages of identifying and understanding a bioactive molecule.

The work is totally separate from drug development, Shapiro emphasized, saying, “We’re not a pharmaceutical company trying to make drugs, but we’re trying to make bioactive compounds that will interact in specific ways that will help us learn how things in the body function.” While drug development is always a possibility further down the chain of scientific processing, it is far removed from the initial creation and identification of the molecule.

More about Jon Shapiro ’17

  • Major: Chemistry
  • Hometown: Rochester, N.Y.
  • High School: Brighton High School

Read more student research stories.

Shapiro and the Majireck team are trying to create a molecule that, unlike caffeine or alcohol, might have more subtle (though not insignificant) activity in the body. The Majireck team is working to create a compound that affects DNA, which is a molecule found in every cell of the human body and that carries the instructions for cell growth and functioning.

Long strands of DNA are coiled in the cell by proteins, which act like spools for the DNA thread. These proteins are essential for the meticulous packaging of DNA in the cell. A molecule called HDAC is like the hand of a sewer that winds the thread about the spool. HDAC can tighten the DNA thread across the spool and, by doing so, hide regions of the DNA from being accessed by the cell.

Shapiro is working in the laboratory to create a molecule that might inhibit the action of HDAC. By altering the hand of the sewer, the molecule could regulate the tightness of the thread around the spool. This process could influence the cell’s use of its DNA. Molecules that inhibit HDAC have been under recent speculation for their potential role in anti-cancer drugs.

However, Shapiro is not sensationalizing the fate of the molecule he is helping create. Instead, he stressed the importance of background research and experimentation. “The main part of our research is studying these specific reactions, to look at things like stability and how to get the best yield of product. Cancer is one of the buzzwords I’m not going to stress, but that might be the eventual interest,” he explained.

By simplifying the methodology behind creating the molecule, Shapiro could contribute to the chemical library and aid its future analysis. If the Majireck team can accurately and reliably create the new molecule this summer, the team will send it to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to determine its biological influence on a living cell.

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