Student Team Co-Authors New Paper in the Journal of Organic Chemistry

Western Washington University Professor of Chemistry Gregory O’Neil and a team of undergraduate student researchers recently published a new paper in the prestigious Journal of Organic Chemistry that details new methods in selectively and precisely modifying steroids such as cortisone and hydrocortisone, as well as other biomolecules.

WWU undergraduates Kelly Yokuda (Chemistry, Richland) and Paul Spaltenstein (Biochemistry, Port Townsend) were co-authors on the paper, along with former graduate student Elizabeth Cummins, WWU’s Tim Kowalczyk and the University of San Diego’s Tim Clark.

The process would allow for the modification of one small, specific part of the molecule, a level of detail and specificity that previous processes lacked.

“When we get into it and modify that one small section of the molecule, we can see how its biological activity changes and make conclusions on these changes. Can we make the steroid more potent or less potent by making these changes? That’s what we’ll be investigating moving forward, now that we can be so specific in our actions,” O’Neil said.

This new process will also allow researchers to develop new drugs by pulling out unneeded groups from existing biomolecules.

“One metaphor that seems to make sense to folks is from a game I play with my son, where we make a pile of metal bells, and he uses a big magnet to try and grab one particular bell from the pile,” he said. “It’s hard to grab just one bell, or grab the one bell you really are trying for. Now, with this process, we can reach down and grab one bell from the stack every time.”

Spaltenstein, who will attend the University of Utah to begin work on his doctorate in the fall, said that the work done to get this paper published not only opened his eyes to how much he enjoys research, but that he possessed multi-tasking skills he never knew he had.

“We were given a month to address all the reviewers’ comments in order for our work to be published. At the time, I was taking classes, preparing for graduate school interviews, and flying out of town for college visits. With the deadline fast approaching, I had to make sure my time in lab was well spent, for sure,” he said.

Yokuda, who will be heading to the University of Toronto in the fall to study multidimensional spectroscopy, said that the experience helped her bridge the gap between theory and experimentation.

“Because my work focused on computational modeling of the chemicals being synthesized by Paul and Dr. O'Neil, this project helped me better understand how modeling chemical behavior can be applied to solving problems in experimental chemistry,” she said. “It also helped me understand where the limitations of these models are and the best methods to use when working with those limitations.”

The research used in the paper was funded by a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. For more information on this research, contact Gregory O’Neil at Gregory.o’