Petasis Named Cope Scholar for 2009

09/08/08
Prestigious award from American Chemical Society recognizes USC chemist’s lasting contributions to his field.
By Carl Marziali
Nicos Petasis has focused part of his research on lipoxins, short-lived substances released by the body to fight inflammation.

Photo/Alexandra Bissonnette
USC chemist Nicos Petasis, an authority on organic synthesis and drug discovery, including the anti-inflammatory compounds known as lipoxins and beneficial substances such as omega-3 fatty acids, has received the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award from the American Chemical Society.

The award honors excellence in organic chemistry and is one of the most prestigious prizes in the field.

Petasis, the Harold E. & Lillian M. Moulton Professor of Chemistry in the USC College’s Loker Hydrocarbon Institute, is the first USC recipient.

The award, given annually to nominees from the United States and other countries, carries a $5,000 cash prize, a certificate and an unrestricted $40,000 research grant.

The names of the winners for 2009 were announced by the American Chemical Society. Each of the 10 Cope scholars is invited to address the Arthur C. Cope Symposium, to be held next August at the society’s national meeting in Washington, D.C.

According to the society’s citation, Petasis was chosen “for the discovery and development of new organic reactions … and for advancing the chemistry and biology of lipid mediators.”

“His work is often characterized not only by originality but also by simplicity, practicality and usefulness,” said Surya Prakash, professor of chemistry and scientific director of the Loker Institute.

“As organic chemists, we have unique opportunities to be both creative and helpful,” Petasis said. “By inventing new processes and new molecules with desired features, we can also address some of our greatest challenges, such as improving human health, finding sustainable energy resources and protecting the environment.”

Petasis developed a compound, now known as the “Petasis reagent,” that is being used in many research laboratories and was licensed to the pharmaceutical company Merck for the development of the chemotherapy drug Emend.

He also discovered two other reactions that carry his name, including the “Petasis reaction,” a novel, environmentally friendly process for synthesizing many kinds of amino acids and other molecules important in drug discovery. This widely used technology also was licensed to the pharmaceutical industry.

“During the over 100-year history of synthetic organic chemistry, only a few hundred chemical reactions have been named after the chemists that have introduced them,” Prakash said.

“In the case of professor Petasis, in a relatively short time, he managed to introduce not only one but three entirely different and unique chemical reactions that are now routinely named after him.”

Petasis also has focused his research on lipoxins and related beneficial molecules derived from omega-3 fatty acids. Lipoxins are natural, short-lived substances released by the body to fight inflammation. Petasis and longtime collaborator Charles Serhan, of Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, have been developing synthetic versions of lipoxins with improved stability and longevity.

“The discovery of stable lipoxin analogs created a new paradigm on how to treat inflammation,” Petasis has said.

His most recent work seeks to explain how omega-3 fatty acids promote good health. Widely touted for their protective effects, particularly against heart disease, omega-3 fatty acids are available in fish products, nuts and other natural sources as well as in many dietary supplements.

By studying how these molecules work, Petasis and his collaborators are gaining insights into how to protect the body against major diseases, including inflammatory disorders, periodontal disease, cystic fibrosis, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. He is also collaborating with several researchers at the USC School of Pharmacy, the USC Keck School of Medicine and USC/Norris on the development of new anti-cancer agents with novel mechanisms of action.

Petasis was born in Cyprus and earned his undergraduate education in Greece. He earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania and joined USC in 1987, receiving his endowed chair in 2001.

He has given more than 160 invited lectures and is the author of more than 130 papers and holder of several patents. Earlier this year, he also received the USC Associates Award for Creativity in Research and Scholarship.

The American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society dedicated to a single discipline, has more than 160,000 members. The division of organic chemistry is the largest division of the society. For more information, visit http://www.acs.org