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Chemists synthesize molecule that helps body battle cancers, malaria

James E. Kloeppel, Physical Sciences Editor
217-244-1073; kloeppel@illinois.edu

3/1/2005

David Y. Gin
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
David Y. Gin, a professor of chemistry, and his colleagues have synthesized QS-21A, a medically important molecule that helps the body battle disease.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The first synthesis of QS-21A, a medicinally important molecule that helps the body battle disease, has been achieved by chemists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In clinical trials, QS-21A has been shown to significantly improve the body’s immune response in vaccine therapies against aggressive diseases such as melanoma, breast cancer, small-cell lung cancer, prostate cancer, HIV-1 and malaria. An extract from the bark of the South American tree Quillaja saponaria Molina, QS-21A is available only in small quantities.

“Now that we have synthesized this remarkable molecule and confirmed its structure, we are in a position to examine how it works and investigate ways to improve its performance,” said David Y. Gin, a professor of chemistry at Illinois. Gin and his collaborators describe their work in a paper that has been accepted for publication in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and posted on its Web site.

An extremely powerful adjuvant, QS-21A enhances the potency of antigens introduced in the body to elicit an immune response, allowing for lower vaccine doses with greater effectiveness. The molecule could therefore save patients money on expensive drugs and stretch limited supplies of antigens and vaccines.

Gin and his collaborators are now exploring ways to improve the molecule. By investigating structure activity relationships, they want to strip away nonessential structures, leaving a simpler and more potent core.

“One frequent problem encountered with vaccines is ensuring that the vaccine is potent enough to elicit a strong immune response,” Gin said. “We will continue looking for ways to produce new molecules similar to QS-21A that will enhance the body’s natural immune response to eradicate diseases.”

The research team included postdoctoral research associates Pengfei Wang, Mauricio Navarro-Villalobos and Bridget D. Rohde, and graduate student Yong-Jae Kim. The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health.