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Past Winner
2005 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship


Organic Chemistry

Simon Fraser University


Making new molecules isn't enough for organic materials chemist Dr. Neil Branda, one of six winners of the 2005 NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship. He wants to be able to control them – in your computer, in your eye glasses and even in your body.

Big Idea: "Can you imagine having to unscrew a light bulb every time you want to turn it off? Well, that’s the analogy to our present use of many drugs. We have the knowledge to design effective drugs, but we don’t have easy ways to regulate their reactivity after they've been administered," says Dr. Branda, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Materials Science at Simon Fraser University.

The Question: How do you create powerful molecules that you can turn on and off with the ease of pointing and clicking a TV remote control? Dr. Branda says the answer lies in being able to remotely switch, or tweak, a molecule's structure. "Only when we can control the structure can we control the function," he says.

With the lowered, rapt tones of an art lover standing before Michelangelo's David, Dr. Branda points to the natural example of spearmint and caraway. The rich smells of spearmint tea and caraway seeds seem worlds apart to the nose. But the molecules that create these two smells are structurally identical – except that they're mirror images. It's a dramatic metaphor for the changes that can be made if one's able to remotely switch a molecule's basic structure.

Research at the Edge: Most of Dr. Branda’s lab's research has focused on creating organic switchable molecules for materials science applications, such as in digital data storage, communications, sensing and even better self-darkening sunglasses. For example, some technology visionaries believe the next generation of computer chips may use a combination of molecules and optics to process data at the speed of light. Today, the trillions of combinations of zeros and ones that code information on your hard drive are stored and accessed electronically. But this system could potentially be replaced with a much faster optical system that uses different colours of light to switch organic molecules into the equivalent of “zero” and “one” states. However, the seemingly intractable problem with using optical systems is that they also rely on light to read the information thus changing or erasing it in the process. To circumvent this, Dr. Branda's lab has developed photoswitches that could use fluorescence to read optical data in a non-destructive way.

The Next Step: Not many researchers think about optical wave guiding for telecommunications one day, and battling cancer the next. But Dr. Branda is a wild horse of a thinker who seeks chemical control while leaving his own intellectual vistas wide open.

"We've proven that we can make molecules and change their structure using switching properties to get new characteristics, whether it's colour or fluorescence," says Dr. Branda. "Now it's time to take it to what I think is a real challenge: switching structure and using these changes to impact health sciences and medicine."

During his NSERC Steacie Fellowship, Dr. Branda will be collaborating with health sciences researchers to explore methods of drug delivery and activation in areas including cancer treatment. The field of photodynamic therapy has seen some remarkable success such as the light-activated molecule Visudyne® created by Vancouver-based QLT to treat age-related macular degenerative blindness. But Dr. Branda says this world of chemical wizardry-meets-medicine is still in the toddler stage.

"There are numerous drugs today that would be effective, but they're too toxic. You can't get them to their target without causing a lot of other damage," he notes.

His lab's research will focus on exploring the creation of masked drug delivery systems, and drugs that can be photoswitched from inactive to active forms. One idea is to sandwich a drug between two light-switchable molecules. When the light hits the molecules, their shape changes and they release their payload to deliver its medical hit.

Dr. Branda will also add his expertise to an international team of researchers at 4D LABS, a new $35-million research facility at Simon Fraser University created to speed the commercialization of advanced materials and nano-scale devices. (The four Ds in the lab name stand for design, develop and demonstrate prototype devices.) Dr. Branda’s molecular switches will be incorporated into molecular electronic and photonic devices that could lead to major advances in information and health technologies.