BLACKSBURG, Va., Feb. 20, 2002 -- Years of research by Virginia Tech chemist David G. I. Kingston has resulted in knowledge that helped improve the efficiency of a potent anti-cancer drug and also helped in saving vital tropical forests in South America. For this and other work, the Science Museum of Virginia and the Office of the Governor are naming Kingston a Virginia Outstanding Scientist of 2002.
Kingston was the first chemist in the United States to study the chemical qualities of paclitaxel, or Taxol™, now the world's best-selling anticancer drug. Taxol is used to treat breast and ovarian cancer, as it inhibits cell division.
The original source of Taxol was the 100-year-old Pacific yew tree, and six trees were sacrificed to treat each patient. Kingston's work paved the way for developing a semi-synthetic process to create Taxol, according to the Science Museum of Virginia, and "laid the foundation of Taxol chemistry and provided much of the basic research leading to development of improved versions of Taxol."
"Researchers at the National Cancer Institute call Kingston the world's leading expert on the chemistry of Taxol," according to the Science Museum of Virginia's press release. He began working on Taxol when few people were interested in it. "His investigations have created a foundation for what is now an international scientific effort."
One of the goals of Taxol research was to be able to give higher doses of the drug targeted to the tumor so as to reduce toxic effects. Kingston has received patents for modifying certain positions of molecules that improved the activity of Taxol. For example, he found that modifying one of the benzoyl groups of Taxol in a specific way significantly improved the drug's potency. Two different pharmaceutical companies have incorporated this modification, along with other modifications of their own, in developing new compounds that are in clinical trial. "Our discovery is a key part of these new compounds" Kingston said.
Much of Kingston's work has been done in Suriname, a country rich in biodiversity. While doing chemical work with Taxol, Kingston also has been studying other natural products for their usefulness in the medical field. He serves as the principal investigator and group leader for the Suriname biodiversity utilization and conservation project.
When a timber company wanted to cut trees in the tropical forests that included three of Suriname's parks, Conservation International (CI) argued that tropical forests were the source of many of the anticancer drugs discovered in the last 30 years and could result in revenue for the country down the road. CI pointed to Kingston's research and the results it was achieving as one argument for the establishment of the Central Suriname Nature Preserve. The group argued that, by selling the forest, the country would lose any future revenues from drug development.
Also, in doing research in Suriname, Kingston had studied the traditional herbal remedies, which helped preserve that knowledge and also provided an argument that cutting the forest would deplete the country of those herbal cures. In those ways, Kingston said, his work contributed a piece to the effort that resulted in the saving of those valuable forests.
While Kingston continues to look at other analogs of Taxol, he also is looking into other natural products with similar biological mechanisms. He is researching how those related compounds bind to tubulin, a protein important for cell division. Taxol binds to tubulin and makes it polymerize into microtubules. These other compounds do the same thing as Taxol.
"We're looking at one of those compounds now," Kingston said, "and plan to expand to others to see how they do the same thing Taxol does. Kingston is collaborating with biochemist Susan Bane at SUNY-Binghamton in these studies.
Kingston earned his undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees from Cambridge University in his native England and held research and teaching positions at Queens' College, Cambridge. He worked as a biochemistry research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served as a NATO Fellow at Cambridge, and was an assistant professor of chemistry at SUNY-Albany before coming to Virginia Tech in 1971 as an associate professor of chemistry. He was named professor in 1977 and University Distinguished professor in 1999.
Kingston holds 13 patents, two of which have been licensed for use by companies, and has brought in more than $10 million in external funding to Virginia Tech. He has received numerous awards, including the Research Achievement Award from the American Society of Pharmacognosy in 1999 and the Gene Wise Award from the Blue Ridge Section of the American Chemical Society that same year. He has 222 original refereed research publications and 21 invited chapters in books and journals. He was associate editor of the Journal of Natural Products 1983-1998 and served as president of the American Society of Pharmacognosy 1988-1989.
He is on the editorial board of two scientific publications and is a research associate of the Missouri Botanical Garden. A recent issue of the botanical journal Novon described a newly discovered South American tree that has been named for Kingston by James Miller of the Missouri Botanical Garden; Dr. Miller works on biodiversity studies in Suriname with Kingston. The tree belongs to the genus Cordia and is named Cordia kingstoniana J.S. Miller.
The Scientist of the Year Award will be presented to Kingston April 15 at a black-tie dinner at the Science Museum of Virginia. He is one of four Virginians who will be honored, including one other Scientist of the Year, a Virginia Outstanding Industrialist 2002, and a Lifetime Achievement in Science 2002 recipient.
Kingston becomes the sixth Virginia Tech professor to receive the designation Scientist of the Year since 1993, the fifth member of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the fourth member of the Department of Chemistry. Also, the Life Achievement in Science award went to a Virginia Tech chemist in 1991. In addition, two Virginia Tech alumni have earned the Industrialist of the Year award since receiving degrees at Virginia Tech.
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Researchers: David G.I. Kingston