Penelope Laurans, the acting master of Jonathan Edwards College, saw it coming. When former Provost Andrew Hamilton joined the Yale faculty in 1997, word began to circulate among undergraduates. “He could teach ‘orgo,’ the most dreaded course in the curriculum, and give it wonder and spark,” she recalled students telling each other.
Introducing Hamilton — the incoming vice chancellor at the University of Oxford — at the 2009 Tetelman Lecture on Wednesday, Laurans said she could recall telling University President Richard Levin, “Somehow I just knew … this person was not going to be long for teaching chemistry, for doing research for chemistry, or maybe long for Yale.”
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Speaking on “Recognition in the Molecular World: Using Organic Chemistry in the Search for New Treatments for Cancer and Malaria,” Hamilton returned to his roots as a chemistry professor renowned for making complex topics accessible to his audience. During the lecture, Hamilton employed quotations from Shakespeare, cartoons and a picture of Marilyn Monroe to illustrate the significance of recent scientific discoveries made by himself and his team of Yale researchers.
The proteins Hamilton and his team have created can inhibit mutated proteins that indirectly cause cancer, thus preventing them from proliferating uncontrollably.
“We might have a way of reversing cancers,” Hamilton said.
In normal cells, the regulatory protein Ras can act as a switch, turning on or off particular molecules responsible for cell replication. But, in 35 percent of human cancers and 95 percent of pancreatic cancers, Ras is mutated — overstimulating the cell’s replication machinery and leading to dangerous growth.
In experimental trials, tumor growth in mice was eliminated in all trials injected with the molecular compound developed by the team.
“I’m delighted to say that this compound has just entered into clinical trials and we’ll see in the next few months its effectiveness on human trials,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton and his team used a similar concept in their work on malaria, Hamilton said, by creating a molecule that can bind to other molecular sites in human cells targeted most by malaria, theoretically blocking the ability of malaria to spread throughout the body.
The lecture has been Hamilton’s only one on campus this year, and it may be his last for a while. Last summer, Hamilton was confirmed as Oxford’s next vice chancellor, a position he will assume in October.
But Hamilton said several of his laboratory’s researchers will accompany him to Oxford this fall, along with the equipment in his lab.
Among the 100 people in attendance were high-ranking members of the science community, including Chemistry Department Chair Gary Brudvig and Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steven Girvin, whom Hamilton called on by their first names in the question-and-answer session that followed the lecture.
Andrew “Brick” Johnson ’05, who was sitting toward the back of the audience, called Hamilton’s statement about the possibility of actually reversing cancer a “powerful moment.”
“Everyone around me just looked at one another and smiled,” Johnson said. “This may not be as far off as we thought.”
Hamilton — the Benjamin Silliman professor of chemistry — served as chair of the Chemistry Department and deputy provost for science and technology before being tapped in 2004 to serve as provost, Yale’s top-ranking administrator after the president.