School of Science NEWS

Connecting biology, medicine, and material science: a wrap-up of the 2019 Westlake Chemistry Symposium

20, 2019


Chemistry is more than just another academic subject. The periodic table of elements, structural graphs, chemical reaction formulas…from textbooks to our everyday world, chemistry is everywhere. Seasonal changes, food/shelter/travel/clothing, the life (and death) of humans—chemistry is all encompassing.


Recently, a two-day chemistry symposium took place in Hangzhou, featuring 17 inspiring lectures from experts in the field. They covered fungal components, glycopeptides, NACs and more. The landscape of advanced chemical studies gave insight into the latest innovations in chemistry and how they interface with biology, environmental science, medicine, industry, and the future.


Chemistry and personalized immunological treatment

Professor Yanmei LI, Tsinghua University


For some, personalized nutrition may sound familiar. But using personalized nutrition to treat the phenomenal tumors?


While different patients may have same category of tumor, their tumor cells may demonstrate different properties, she explained. This illuminates personalized treatment to provide targeted remedies for individual patients (Professor Li works with glycopeptides, glycosylation, tumor antigen, and adjuvant).


“The surface of tumor cells and the skeleton of proteins—their glucose properties vary,” said Professor Li. “How can we use glucose and protein skeletons to trigger antibiotics targeted at tumors in our immune system, identify tumor cells and kill them effectively? That is what we are researching.”


After two years of hard work, her team has discovered a workable combination and is now developing ways to move forward. Professor Li says that this strategy is also applicable to viruses and bacteria in addition to tumor treatment.


Chemistry and biology

“New disciplines evolve with the progression of our education--nature does not distinguish between physics, chemistry, and biology, so neither should science,” said Professor Peng CHEN from Peking University. “For instance, in disease treatment studies, an interdisciplinary approach is encouraged in the design of new treatment plans.” Professor Chen, a pioneer scholar engaged in interdisciplinary studies of chemistry and biology, works with bio-orthogonal reaction and protein activators.


Professor Chen walked us through his research on the development of tools and applications. “The first step for us is to understand the mechanism of life, including the differentiation of stem cells and the evolution of cancer cells. This knowledge can provide us with new technology and methodologies for intervention, but further studies are needed.”


Professor Chen highlights bio-orthogonal reaction, a technique used to label proteins. “Imagine the reaction as a crossover bridge, with healthy cells as the traffic moving on one direction,” said Professor Chen. “To ensure safety and avoid traffic jams, such a reaction is needed to label proteins in cells—which makes it a promising management tool.”


Chemistry and material science

When you see the surface of a solid object, you may try to figure out if it is smooth or not. But as a chemist, Professor Nanfeng ZHENG from Xiamen University has a chain of different questions. What happens when molecules touch the surface of the object? What kind of reaction will occur? How to control that reaction?


It is never easy to understand the surface of a solid object from a molecular perspective. Due to the complexity of chemical structures, there is still no effective means to measure the surface structure and chemical processes that may occur, which creates further barriers in precisely controlling surface reaction.


Professor Zheng has an in-depth understanding of surface reactions—his mission to precisely control catalysts and other variables involved in the chemical reactions at the surface level. Over 80% of chemical reactions use catalysts, and among those, 90% are heterogeneous catalysts (such as supported metal nanoparticles).


In the face of mounting challenges from economic development and environmental protection, Professor Zheng identifies three essential attributes for an ideal catalyst. Firstly, high catalytic activity, significantly accelerating chemical reactions; secondly, high stability and recyclability; thirdly, environmental friendliness. “What we attempt to achieve is to understand chemical reactions on the surface of heterogeneous catalyst at atomic and molecular levels,” he said, “reactions that can be applicable in the design of optimal heterogeneous catalysts that regulate the chemical reaction on the complex solid surface structure with a higher efficiency and a lower impact on environment.”


Chemistry and innovation

“The most outstanding feature of chemistry is to ability to create new stuff,” said Professor Shoufei ZHU of Nankai University (who works with (hand protons, metal carbene, organic boride, iron catalysts, and spin states). “Our ancestors used materials from Mother Nature—such as stones, timber, animal skin for chemical creation, and that's how we developed porcelain, metal, and plastic materials. Gradually, we have built ourselves a brand new world with our own hands. So far, tens of millions of registered artificial compounds have been created by us, exceeding the number of organic materials in nature.”


Professor Zhu also briefly introduced three major projects in his lab. Firstly, asymmetric proton transfer catalysis studies, which focus on boosting the effectiveness of amino acid synthesis with less environmental impact or, alternately, creating a new type of amino acid. “Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins,” he said. “Research on amino acids provides us with gateways to the future of biological makeover and drug synthesis.”


The second direction is organic boride. “We have developed enabling synthetic techniques to generate organic boride with an innovative structure and new functions,” said Professor Zhu. “This type of boride is very promising in medical, chemical agents, and material studies.”


The third study concerns the regulation of the iron catalyst’s electrical structure. “The valence electrons of iron can appear in the form of pairs, or independently with rich spin properties,” said Professor Zhu. “This unique property enables transformation at room temperature. Studies in the unknown regulatory ability of spin effects will unlock the potential of iron catalyst and iron catalytic reaction.”


So far, we are still unable to assess the possibility of applications. But the professor is cautiously positive and tells us the unknown is what the magic lies.


“What is the use of Newton’s gravitation theory? Almost everywhere in our macro world,” he said. “What about Einstein’s discovery of energy and mass? Again, almost everywhere.” Professor Zhu feels that the future application of iron catalysts will be infinite.


Event concludes

The symposium marks the first chemistry-themed academic event organized by the School of Science, Westlake University. During the 1.5-day agenda, well-known chemists and experts from top universities and research institutions across China, including (but not limited to) Tsinghua University, Peking University, the Chinese Academy of Science, Zhejiang University, Nankai University, Nanjing University, Sichuan University, East China Normal University, Xiamen University, Donghua University, Hunan University and Nanchang Hangkong University, gave thought-provoking lectures.


“It gives me immense pleasure to welcome all the outstanding scholars and pioneers in the study of chemistry here today,” said Professor Li DENG, Chair Professor of Chemistry, the Director of the Academic Board, and the Acting Dean of the School of Science, Westlake University. “The topics of our symposium covered everything from biological chemistry to material chemistry, from inorganic chemistry to organic chemistry.”


Sharing discoveries and knowledge, discussing existing challenges, and exploring the unknown—this is the ethos of the event hosted by Westlake University. It reminds us of how chemistry, as a fundamental subject open to discoveries, has brought us from a barren space to a modern lifestyle from new architectures to new functions. Every scholar, every lecture, each conversation, and every handshake at Westlake University epitomize our endeavors for a better world.