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Michael Pirrung

Distinguished Professor of Chemistry
Michael Pirrung
Formulating New Treatments for Kidney Cancer
Michael Pirrung’s work preparing complex organic molecules has a whole host of potential applications, from creating flavors and fragrances, to providing new life-saving cancer and HIV treatments. By inhibiting the proteasome, a huge molecular machine found in each cell, his research has developed a promising new compound for treating kidney cancer.

Areas of Expertise

Areas of Expertise:
  • Chemical biology
  • Synthesis
  • Nucleic Acids
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Select Honors and Distinctions

  • European Inventor of the Year, 2006
  • Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists, 2004
  • Intellectual Property Owners Distinguished Inventor Award, 1993
  • John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow, 1994-95
  • Outstanding Young Texas Ex Award, University of Texas Ex-Student's Association, 1995
  • Fellow of the AAAS, 1996

Q&A

Q: Why is your research important?
My work focuses predominantly on the efficient preparation of complex organic molecules. These compounds are often desirable because of their potential medicinal properties, but can have any use such as flavors and fragrances, fibers, supplements, and plant chemicals.

Q: What are some possible implications of your findings?
The obvious immediate application is to treat diseases, but finding new and more efficient ways to make particular molecular classes could benefit every future chemist who wants to prepare that type of molecule, whatever the intended utility. Our most prominent current projects are aimed at treating diseases such as HIV and cancer. In some cases, we are working with drugs already proven to work, and we simply want to make them more efficiently. Other times, we are charged with selecting and making the molecule that has the right properties to become a drug. Our work would impact society by providing new and cheaper medicines.

Q: What is the goal of your research?
We aim to develop a new drug against cancer that has a relatively novel mechanism of action: inhibition of a huge molecular machine found in each cell called the proteasome. Traditionally, cancer drugs have targeted just a few weak points in the cell, so the discovery of the proteasome as a new target for cancer drugs—an important breakthrough of the last decade—has opened up new possibilities for researchers. There are already two FDA-approved drugs that target the proteasome but we aim to use a natural product-based compound. In several therapeutic areas, natural products have proven to be excellent starting points to get safe and effective new drugs. Our molecule tacks itself onto the proteasome, rendering it ineffective. This impedes the division of cancer cells. The two proteasome inhibitors already approved by the FDA target a cancer called multiple myeloma, but the National Cancer Institute is interested in our molecule because it seems particularly adept at targeting kidney cancer cells. This compound is now patented by the University of California, and the UCR Office of Research and Economic Development has supported its further investigation.

Q: How is your research being used?
This phase is still to come. Currently, it’s moving along the standard drug development timeline, which necessitates a considerable amount of testing before actual clinical work can begin. Obviously, the magnitude of those tasks is huge, so a commercialization partner will be needed to truly initiate the process. For the moment, outside groups such as the National Cancer Institute and the Institute for Myeloma & Bone Cancer Research are contributing to our efforts by doing testing that we can’t do in a chemistry lab.

Q: What’s next for your research?
We are preparing further quantities of our drug candidate (since it is consumed in the testing process) and developing alternative structures that could work even more effectively than what we currently have. Our next study is in kidney cancer cells that are grown in a 3-dimensional matrix, as this will more accurately mimic the environment of a solid tumor. 

Q: What are some of the challenges you face as an instructor?
My particular discipline demands great technical skills and experimental dexterity, and like many other ‘talents,’ it can be difficult to teach. My job is to assist students in developing their talents, and to evaluate their ability to go on to practice this craft in their careers. My research both trains the next generation of practitioners in synthetic chemistry and aims to develop new methods (such as automation) that will make its future less dependent on the great technical skills of the current generation.

Q: What does “Living the Promise” mean to you?
To me, the University of California is committed to providing a first-class public university education to the thousands of students it enrolls. Providing students with access to cutting edge research is a critical component of achieving this objective. The faculty at every individual UC must be committed to providing the same level of education at their campus that a student could receive at the most illustrious of the UCs. This means maintaining standards of performance throughout our student body to help students compete in their future career paths, and contributing to advancements in society through research.

Clark Kerr (former chancellor of UC Berkeley) once stated that the goal for higher education in California was to balance the “competing demands of fostering excellence and guaranteeing educational access for all.” I believe we are living the promise by fulfilling this vision. UCR provides the access, and is responsible for ensuring the excellence of the education we provide.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote?
“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”—Galileo

Michael Pirrung “The only way to do research is to do research. We develop methods to prepare compounds, apply those methods to molecules, and then interface with the next discipline to enable our discoveries to improve our health.”

—Michael Pirrung
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