‘Transforming organic chemistry’

WINNING FORMULA: The International Organic Chemistry conference at Rhodes University drew 170 delegates from three continents. PICTURE: GETTY IMAGES

RHODES University hosted the Frank Warren conference last week which had a strong medicinal chemistry theme, especially for poverty-related diseases such as tuberculosis, HIVAids and malaria that are prevalent in Africa.

“These diseases affect millions of people, the treatments have to be dirt cheap and so there’s not a lot of pharmaceutical interest in putting millions into it. Head of the chemistry department at Rhodes University and organising committee member for the conference Prof Rui Krause said.

“And there has been a growing realisation in South Africa that if we don’t start to train people that can look at the medicinal chemistry aspect, the production aspect, that can understand the disease from the biology, disease, treatment perspective, nobody is going to be doing it.”

The International Organic Chemistry conference drew more than 170 delegates from South America, Argentina, Asia and Africa.

“We have tried to link in some people from South America who face very similar kinds of conditions for example in science and they have similar kinds of diseases, for example a huge burden of tuberculosis.

“It’s prevalent here but also there, others such as malaria and leishmanisas, so all diseases that predominantly affect countries in South America, in Africa, in Asia, for which there is not a lot of money for research,” Prof Krause said.

Prof Charles de Koning of Wits University gave the Frank Warren keynote address, titled Around the world with 80 molecules, where he shared highlights from his career in organic chemistry over the past 25 years including notable work on anti-cancer drugs.

His presentation highlighted a range of innovative methods that have been used for total synthesis of products found in nature including that of molecules found in toadstools in New Zealand.

De Koning is presently doing research on copper-containing drugs to treat cancer. Rhodes master of science (pharmacy) student Mayi Lunga said the conference was amazing.

“It was a good learning experience, quite eye opening and challenging to get to see the work that other people are doing in South Africa and countries abroad.

“But more so, despite being different people, the commonality of the love for chemistry, research to further understand the subject and find ways to tackle world problems using our knowledge made us all the more same than different. I’ve been motivated through this conference to keep pursuing knowledge and not limit my thought processes to what is deemed as possible.”

The final session on the programme was a workshop aimed at sharing experiences on and trying to find unified strategies to transform the organic chemistry curriculum as Prof Krause said that “textbooks haven’t been changed for 50 years”.

“Part of what happened this wee is that we gathered as a community, remembered why we love organic chemistry and out of that has come a new idea to create a curriculum which connects with any student who comes into our classroom,” Dr Rosa Klein of Rhodes University chemistry department said.