The Chemical Biology Training Program: Bringing Biochemists and Chemists Together


McGill University's new Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Strategic Training Initiative Program in Chemical Biology is offering students the opportunity to undertake a unique research project that incorporates training in both biochemistry and chemistry. Stephane Leung, who's background is in biochemistry, and Cedric Gaudineau, a chemist, tell us what drew them to this common field.

Stephane Leung: "Having your cake and eating it"

As an undergraduate biochemistry student at McGill University I realized that what interested and intrigued me most wasn't necessarily cell biology but rather chemistry and its profound applications to biology. Although both chemistry and biochemistry may sound the same from a "nonchemist" or "nonbiochemist" point of view, I think anyone working in either field would agree that they are quite different. Whereas biochemistry primarily focuses on the mechanisms of cell function, chemistry delves into the synthesis and quantitative analysis of chemical compounds.

During my degree, I had completed various projects in biochemistry, but none of them left me with enough of a desire to pursue graduate studies in the field. While undertaking a project in obesity and diabetes research, I gained valuable laboratory experience and had the opportunity to work with a great team of scientists; however, pursuing graduate studies in this field didn't immediately appeal to me. What's more, another research project--involving molecular biology--also left me with the same unenthusiastic feeling.

It was only in the last semester of my undergraduate degree, when I took a class in bio-organic chemistry, that I became so fascinated by the subject that I thought of abandoning biochemistry altogether to pursue graduate studies in chemistry. However, once I had heard of the Chemical Biology graduate program at McGill University, I thought that I would have the perfect opportunity to practice organic chemistry within a biochemical context. So, who says you can't have your cake and eat it too?

The interdisciplinary Chemical Biology program is designed to provide training in chemistry and cell and molecular biology, and as such it attracts students from both spheres. Included in the Chemical Biology curriculum is a full-year course, called drug design and development (DD&D), in which scientists from different sectors of the pharmaceutical industry give a series of lectures. In contrast to most science classes, which have a heavy theoretical content, this course provides valuable firsthand insight into various aspects of pharmaceutical discovery, ranging from computational chemistry to drug patenting. In the second half of the DD&D course, students partake in a group project in which biochemists, pharmacologists, and chemists have a chance to work together. Other courses involve seminars pertaining specifically to chemical biology, as well as complementary courses in either organic chemistry or biochemistry, depending on the student's interests.

Furthermore, all student research projects must have both a firm biochemical and a chemical component. My own thesis project involves the synthesis of lipid-modified peptides and their subsequent structural analysis. The structure of the lipidated membrane-targeting regions of many signaling proteins remains to be established, and it may provide valuable information for designing inhibitors to block the membrane targeting and/or effector coupling of these proteins.

So where do I want to go from here? Although the future is never certain, following my Chemical Biology degree I aim to study medicine with the hopes of both practicing medicine and applying what I have learned in chemical biology to academic research. Consequently, I hope to bridge the gap between clinical medicine and biochemical/pharmaceutical research.

Essentially, the primary focus of the Chemical Biology program is to provide students with substantial knowledge in chemistry as it applies to cellular function--and vice versa. In an era in which the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors are rapidly expanding, McGill's program is an effort to fasten the link between two distinct disciplines. With the recent sequencing of the human genome, the next step will be to study the proteins that the sequences code for. Such a task will require knowledge of biochemistry as well as chemistry in order to unlock all the potential information. Hopefully, a graduate degree in Chemical Biology will give students an edge when competing for jobs in pharmaceutical research or academia. Regardless, it's a good way for students who, like me, have interests in another field to explore and experience the growing interdisciplinary trend.

Cedric Gaudineau: "Learning to communicate across disciplines"

When chemists, biochemists, and pharmacologists have to work together they often discover that their different backgrounds are a source of communication problems. How can people speaking different jargons communicate together? The solution may be to learn the language of the person you talk to. This is what I was looking for when I applied to the McGill/CIHR Chemical Biology program.

I did my undergraduate studies in chemistry at the Ecole Supérieure de Chimie de L' Ouest in France, which I completed with a research project at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. I then gained further work experience at Dow Agrosciences--also in the UK--as a research assistant. Although much of this work was related to analytical and organic chemistry, I found that I wanted to know more about the chemistry of biological systems.

As a graduate student at McGill University, I am now participating myself in research that combines the fields of chemistry, biochemistry, and pharmacology. I find such interdisciplinary research very exciting, as the findings may have important implications for day-to-day living. For example, our research group studies the inhibition of cytochrome P450 enzymes (P450s), which are involved in drug metabolism, by natural products like niacin or Gingko biloba. Before getting to the market, natural products, such as herbal remedies, are not typically tested for their reaction with the body's P450s. Our research has revealed that both niacin (a vitamin that is used in large doses to lower cholesterol) and Ginkgo biloba inhibit human P450s and, thus, may lead to unwanted drug interactions and other important side effects.

An essential aspect of graduate studies includes keeping up with the scientific literature. As you may have experienced yourself, it takes time to understand a scientific publication when you don't have the background required. I must admit that, as a chemist, I initially had trouble reading publications related to enzymes and drug metabolism. The McGill/CIHR program helps to overcome this sort of problem by giving students the opportunity to become sufficiently versed in all three disciplines.

The program indeed encourages the students to take classes, workshops, and attend seminars outside their own field. To help my particular project and broaden my knowledge base, for example, I followed the course "protein structure and function." Other courses students may take are bio-organic chemistry and drug design and development, and the workshops include combinatorial chemistry, structural biology, proteomics, and bioinformatics.

The Chemical Biology program is relatively new with registered students carrying out their research within the chemistry, pharmacology and biochemistry departments. The program also features an annual Research Day, providing an opportunity for students to get together and present their research.

Overall, the McGill/CIHR Chemical Biology program should provide me with some of the important skills I'll need to reach my goal of working in the pharmaceutical industry. Most importantly, in addition to giving me exposure to the techniques often used in this industry, it will give me a capacity to communicate with the biochemists and pharmacologists.

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