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'Rad Scientist' Episode 3: Can Molecules From The Coast Be Tomorrow's Cancer Medicine?

Philip Baran in front of the whiteboard in his office at Scripps. His daughters’ drawings are along the bottom and his chemical reactions at the top.
Margot Wohl
Philip Baran in front of the whiteboard in his office at Scripps. His daughters’ drawings are along the bottom and his chemical reactions at the top.

'Rad Scientist' Episode 3: Can Molecules From The Coast Be Tomorrow's Cancer Medicine?
'Rad Scientist' Episode 3: Can Molecules From The Coast Be Tomorrow's Cancer Medicine? GUEST:Phil Baran, Ph.D., chemistry department chair, Scripps Research Institute

This is KPBS Mid Day Edition I Michael Lipkin in for Maureen Cavanaugh. KPBS podcast call ad Scientist gives us some background and insight into the people who make up San Diego's research community. It is hosted by sending a scientist Margot Wolh. Today's episode introduces us to Phil Baran a MacArthur genius recipient and has been dubbed the Sultan of synthesis and the magician of molecules. That he is not a fan of either of those names.Certainly I am not that. I would say the best descriptor is Phil was born in New Jersey, he likes to do chemistry and he is currently on Scripps and the guy that does not lead from that lab. To come to work in a T-shirt and jeans, and a baseball cap.He made dress casually but this guy serious about his chemistry. Phil was hooked from the beginning.The first time I just did a reaction, I was like, I dunno, [Music] you had shivers down your spine, and it was kind of like the most exhilarating thing because you have godlike powers. Think about it, you are creating. For me it was just about like, how do you minimize sleep and all other things to maximize the time doing that?Phil was so excited about his work that some nights he would sleep in the lab. Things are little different now.Before I had a family it was like I could give you okay, not here between one and seven. In the morning. But yes, it is not doable. I would not want to do that. I want to see my kids grow up otherwise what is the point of having them?Across from his desk is a floor-to-ceiling whiteboard that he shares with his three young daughters. The bottom half is an artistic canvas but above the reach, it is all organic chemistry.Those are not scientific lines. That is actually that wall is kind of a gray area of seriousness. It starts up with the little one down there scribbling and then the drawings become more coherent. There is a Santa Claus. There is a turkey from Bates giving time. I dunno what is there, like some sort of bear. And finally when you have exceeded their height, it becomes science.Phil is a dad and also an organic chemist but not the kind of organic you are probably thinking of.Well organic just refers to the study of molecules that are made up of things like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, it is not to be confused with the term people use for few -- for through with no pesticide. Our lifespan has gotten a lot longer as a result of organic chemistry. Thousands of FDA approved medicines interesting from chemist.And about 75 percent of these medicines come from natural sources like tree bark or bacteria. And that is where organic chemists like Phil come in. They figure out ways to make lots of that natural product for cheap instead of pilfering from nature. One of the first natural products to be made synthetically is something your liver is making right now.1800s I think they made urea and that was a big freaking deal. Because it showed like urea is made by animals. And we humans could make that thing thing.Urea, compound found in you guested, urine. For the first time chemist were able to make an organic molecule which our bodies make naturally in the lab and since then chemists have been trying to make lots of molecules that nature has been making for eons and that can be really hard. Phil remembers a time when he washed -- watched his colleagues trying to re-create and animatic normally found in soil.And they had basically just enough for the micro, micro amount and detective, you cannot even see. It was like not even visible to the eye. The way they compared it was they had this enormous look like a jar, full of yes, pickle jar full of this white powder and I as what is that and they said that is the authentic material. Nature was making so much of this compound yet humans could barely with a team of 20 people make not even enough for a naked eye to see. And that shocked me.So that became Phil's mission. Solving hard problems in organic chemistry.If a natural product can be made in nature in metric ton scale, and in the past humans attempt to make it as required, hundreds and hundreds of years of equivalent effort, only to procure what is an incontestable amount, a final product, you have to ask yourself, what fundamentally is a difference between trying to bridge that gap and trying to colonize another planet? That is our Mars mission.Even though he compares his work to space acceleration, bill hopes to find the medicines up tomorrow in his own backyard in San Diego.The ocean.There is a good reason why you want to go to the ocean to ferment natural products. The first is that Marine natural products have the benefit of being under extreme selection pressure for billions of years with constant interaction. Everything is in solution. So unlike a tree which a tree might be in Al Capone may not speak to a tree in Carmel Valley but in the ocean those duties will be talking and if they are subversive will be talking.There is a fight over resources. There is a fight for territory. And there is a defense that needs to take place so all of those organisms, final bacteria, tourniquets, sponges, all of those are in a constant fight for survival and therefore lots of evolution is going on.So marine organisms are making compounds to communicate and to fight and they are likely to be bioactive, meaning they could be a potential medicine. And this is not just a pipe dream for Phil. A few years ago he cofounded a local start call Serena's Marine discovery to catalog molecules found in the ocean and understand whether they can be used for human medicine. And he says these compounds might even be better than the ones we find on land.If everything is the result in the ocean and the drug you want to make presumably you would like to dissolve in the stomach and in the bloodstream, aqueous environment, it stands to reason that those compounds arising from the saline environment might have better physical chemical properties than once coming from tree bark.So he is mining the oceans. The most abundant resource on earth.If you're looking for like the Eiffel Tower, of organic synthesis, take things that are products of nature, super, puberty, and -- superduper cheap and turn them into things of high-value. In fact that the end of the day I think I'll chemist secretly are just alchemist. All they want to do is convert iron into gold. And we are guilty of it too. I'm still looking for way to convert iron into go.Even though technology is progressing in leaps and bounds Phil says organic chemistry is one field that needs human brain power to keep moving forward.There will still be a need for talented, passionate, chemist who like art and exploring space, but they are not very artistic. And are afraid of leading gravity.Is that you?Yes.[Laughter]That was Phil Baran at the Scripps research and speaking in an episode of the new KPBS podcast ad Scientist the podcast hosted by Margot Wolh as part of the KPBS Explorer program.

The KPBS podcast "Rad Scientist" is trying to bridge a connection between San Diego's scientific community and non-scientists. Podcast host Margot Wohl is working towards her Ph.D. in neuroscience at UC San Diego.

The third episode features Phil Baran who is chair of the chemistry department at the Scripps Research Institute. Baran is studying if molecules from the coast can be used as a future medicine to fight cancer.

"Rad Scientist" is one of seven local content projects selected for the KPBS Explore program.