Chemist K.C. Nicolaou to join Rice U. faculty



B.J. Almond

Chemist K.C. Nicolaou to join Rice U. faculty

CPRIT grant brings cancer drug pioneer to BioScience Research Collaborative

 HOUSTON – (Sept. 20, 2012) – Pioneering chemist Kyriacos Costa “K.C.” Nicolaou of California’s acclaimed Scripps Research Institute will join the Rice University faculty in 2013 with the aid of a $6 million recruitment grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). He hopes to develop a “formidable alliance” against cancer.

Today the Rice Board of Trustees approved his appointment as the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Chair of Chemistry and the building of his laboratory at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC).

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Nicolaou is the Aline W. and L.S. Skaggs Professor of Chemical Biology, the Darlene Shiley Chair in Chemistry and founding chairman of the Department of Chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute. He is also a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego.

“K.C. is among the legendary leaders of chemistry,” Rice Provost George McLendon said. “In joining the Rice and Texas Medical Center community, he will focus his prodigious intellect on synthesis in cancer research, which can be transformative for us and those we serve. K.C. is known as a great leader both in science and academia. Rice will benefit greatly from both.”

“We are thrilled to be able to recruit another super-star researcher to Rice, and very grateful to CPRIT for making this possible,” President David Leebron said. “K.C. Nicolaou will further cement the role of the BioScience Research Collaborative as the link between Rice research and medical application, working with our partners in the Texas Medical Center.”

Nicolaou’s lab specializes in organic chemistry with a focus on the total synthesis of molecules found in nature, a discipline with roots in the 19th century. In total synthesis, chemists combine simple molecules to replicate more complex ones and make useful but rare molecules more widely available. Total synthesis also incorporates the creation of novel molecules useful in biochemistry and medicine. Nicolaou is an expert in finding new techniques and strategies for chemical synthesis, and his best-known breakthrough is the total synthesis of paclitaxel, better known as Taxol, a widely used anti-cancer drug.

His lab has also synthesized the anti-leukemia agent calicheamicin, the antibiotic of last resort vancomycin, the antifungal drug amphotericin, the immunosuppressant drug rapamycin and brevetoxins A and B, two molecules associated with the red tide phenomenon that is deadly to marine life.

At Rice, Nicolaou plans to focus on the synthesis of natural and designed molecules of biological and medical importance to cancer research. “We will bring synthesis to join forces with the biomedical research scientists at Rice and the neighboring Texas Medical Center,” he said. “We hope to make advances toward the discovery of new drugs against cancer and other diseases. The combination of chemistry and biology is a formidable alliance in the fight against cancer.”

Nicolaou said he is looking forward to the move to Houston next year when his lab has been built in the BRC. “Rice’s prestige transcends the country and beyond,” he said. “I am extremely honored and very appreciative of the trust that the university has placed in me. I’m excited to join such a distinguished faculty in chemistry and to work in the wonderful BRC, where biologists, chemists and nanotechnology experts roam the corridors.” Another reason he is excited about coming to Rice is that his daughter, Colette Nicolaou, is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology.

Seiichi Matsuda, Rice’s E. Dell Butcher Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Department of Chemistry, said, “Professor Nicolaou has had an enormous impact instructing courses at Scripps and UC San Diego. His devotion to the craft of teaching has been so high that he has routinely written textbooks to support his courses. His three volumes of  ‘Classics in Total Synthesis’ have served as the foundation for hundreds of chemists at Scripps and UC San Diego, but Professor Nicolaou has educated many more students through these seminal texts, which are required reading in numerous graduate-level courses around the world.

“Similarly, his undergraduate course entitled “Molecules That Changed the World” and his textbook of the same name have provided inspiration to young students all around the world by illuminating nature’s most intriguing molecules and scientific advances in synthesizing and modifying them to improve human life,” Matsuda said.

Nicolaou has authored more than 740 papers, and his research has been cited more than 45,000 times, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Science Citation Report. Nearly 500 graduate students and postdocs have been trained in his labs.

Born in Cyprus, Nicolaou earned a bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of London and was a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University and Harvard University. He taught chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was awarded a Sloan Fellowship for early career scientists, and moved to UC San Diego and Scripps in 1989.

Nicolaou is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the German Academy of Science Leopoldina. Last year he was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Chemistry. He holds more than 60 patents.

The recruitment of Nicolaou was made possible by a $6 million CPRIT grant. CPRIT was approved by state taxpayers in a 2007 ballot initiative to provide $3 billion to support cancer research in Texas. The program includes grants designed to attract outstanding senior research faculty to academic institutions in Texas.

Nicolaou follows three high-profile scientists who joined the Rice faculty from UC San Diego in 2011. Herbert Levine, José Onuchic and Peter Wolynes have moved their research laboratories, as well as the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, to the BRC. The recruitment of Levine and Onuchic to Houston was made possible by a $10 million CPRIT grant awarded to Rice.


Related Materials:

The Art and Science of Total Synthesis at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century by K. C. Nicolaou, Dionisios Vourloumis, Nicolas Winssinger and Phil Baran:

Total Synthesis and the Creative Process:
An Interview with K.C. Nicolaou:

Video for Benjamin Franklin Medal:

Photo of K.C. Nicolaou for download:

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About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.