Prof. Robert Moriarty Wins ACS Award for Creative Research & Applications of Iodine Chemistry

Jan 17, 2005
Prof. Robert Moriarty Wins ACS Award for Creative Research & Applications of Iodine Chemistry

Robert M. Moriarty's academic work in iodine chemistry has been published in dozens of articles and has earned him the acclaim of his colleagues. It's his industrial work in process chemistry, however, that has earned him enough money to race Formula Mazdas and M3 BMWs throughout the Midwest.

Moriarty, 71, got hooked on chemistry as a youth in 1940s New York City with the help of a Gilbert chemistry set and the enticing reagents he could easily purchase from local chemical distributors. He attended Fordham University, receiving a B.S. in chemistry in 1955. Soon after, he joined Merck & Co. in the Rahway, N.J., research group of Lewis H. Sarett, who had been the first chemist to synthesize cortisone.

After a short stint, Moriarty left Merck for graduate work in Everett S. Wallis' labs at Princeton University. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1959 and conducted postdoctoral research with both Rolf Huisgen at the University of Munich and Elias J. Corey at Harvard University. Moriarty credits Corey for providing a research foundation. "I worked on five or six projects for E. J., each of which I failed at, but each of which formed the basis for my subsequent research," he says.

Following his postgraduate work, Moriarty taught at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., for six years, then joined the faculty of the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), in 1968. Moriarty says he got interested in iodine chemistry in 1981 while trying to find a reagent that would donate an oxygen atom in much the same way that oxygenase enzymes do. His experiments with iodosobenzene didn't work in this role, but they gave rise to subsequent, fruitful research into hypervalent iodine.

According to Donald J. Wink, head of the chemistry department at UIC, Moriarty's work with hypervalent iodine has "had a major impact on methodology in organic synthesis." In addition, Wink says, Moriarty's efforts have provided chemists with oxidants that have clear environmental advantages over heavy metals such as lead, thallium, mercury, and chromium.

Although Moriarty is recognized for the 300 academic papers he has published--more than 90 of which are on iodine chemistry--he is equally proud of his lesser known work in the business world.

At around the same time that he was first delving into iodine, Moriarty started a completely unrelated company, SynQuest, dedicated to the synthesis of early-stage drug candidates. One customer was United Therapeutics, which was developing treprostinil, a prostacyclin analog, as a treatment for pulmonary hypertension.

Working with United Therapeutics, Moriarty created a successful synthesis of the drug and produced it at a commercial scale. In 1999, Moriarty sold his company to the drugmaker, turning enough of a profit, he says, "to pursue my rather expensive interest in racing automobiles," which he considers a natural extension of his academic professorial life. The drug, trade-named Remodulin, was approved by the Food & Drug Administration in 2002.

If running a company and teaching at UIC were not enough to keep him busy, in 1997 Moriarty started a second company, OncQuest, to pursue his longtime interest in vitamin D chemistry. The company's main focus is his discovery of 1-a-hydroxy vitamin D-5, which is being developed as a chemopreventive treatment for breast cancer.

Moriarty has slowed down some on the academic front, becoming a professor emeritus in 2002. However, he still maintains a research group at UIC of six postdocs and four graduate students who are focused on glycolipids and antihepatitis B compounds. And things are heating up on the business front: His vitamin D compound just received a patent and is about to go into clinical trials.

The award address will be presented before the Division of Organic Chemistry.--MICHAEL MCCOY

Original Publication: Chemical & Engineering News

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