Andrew Kennedy, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Bates College in Lewiston, explains some of the properties of Bobcat339, a molecule created by a Bates College team. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — An assistant professor and his students have created a new molecule with so much potential to treat cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other medical problems that Bates College is patenting it.

The pivotal page 39 of Haoyu Sun’s notebook, which describes the synthesis of Bobcat339. Photo courtesy Phyllis Graber Jensen, Bates College Buy this Photo

Bobcat339 — named in honor of the Bates’ mascot — inhibits a specific enzyme responsible for controlling the personality of cells. Hinder that enzyme, the thinking goes, and scientists eventually may be able to stop cellular changes in a variety of diseases.

Working with Andrew Kennedy, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, seven student researchers contributed to the 2017 breakthrough. Earlier this year, the group published a scientific paper on Bobcat339 and the college filed for a provisional patent, a first step to fully patenting the new molecule.

“I do think that one day, Bobcat339, in maybe 15 or so, maybe 20 years, could be a therapeutical drug. You never know. I’m optimistic about that,” said Gabriella Chua, a 2018 Bates graduate and lead author of the paper.

It’s not uncommon — and not hard — to design a new molecule. At least on paper. With unlimited combinations of organic compounds, anyone can imagine a new molecule in the same way a baker might imagine a new cookie recipe.

“There are infinite possibilities,” Kennedy said. “You can take students in the lab and pretty quickly they can make something that’s never been seen before in the universe.”

But envisioning it in a notebook or on a chalkboard is different from real life. The vast majority of imagined molecules don’t work once they’re synthesized.

Andrew Kennedy, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Bates College in Lewiston, explains some properties of Bobcat339, a molecule created by a Bates College team. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Bobcat339 did.

“I remember it being like 6 p.m., a giant thunderstorm outside, and high-fiving (student researcher) Kelly Wassarman,” Kennedy said.

Bobcat339 is named for the Bates College mascot but also in honor of its creators. The first “3” in “339” recognizes Haoyu Sun, the third chemist in the lab and a member of the team. The “39” refers to page 39 of Sun’s lab notebook, where the new molecule was first designed.

Along with Chua, Sun and Wassarman, the student team included Joseph Alp, Michael Bennett, Emma Jarczyk and Nathanael Kuzio. Martin Kruse, assistant professor of biology and neuroscience, also contributed a cell culture experiment.

All seven students have since graduated. Some are in graduate school.

Chua, the lead author on the paper, had been considering medical school before she walked into Kennedy’s research lab. Now she’s getting her Ph.D in chemical biology through the Tri-Institutional Program sponsored by Weill Cornell Medical College, The Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She’s open to both academia and research as a career.

With their professor, Andrew Kennedy, right, three of the seven Bates College student co-authors of the scientific paper describing Bobcat339, pose in May at the Lewiston campus. From left, are Michael Bennett, Haoyu Sun and Nathanael Kuzio. The three are members of the Class of 2019. Photo courtesy Phyllis Graber Jensen, Bates College

“I think it shifted my perspective,” she said of her work in the Bates lab.

Bobcat339’s creation is the first step in a very long process that could ultimately lead to its use treating a variety of diseases, including cancer and disorders associated with impaired memory, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Kennedy has spent years researching Pitt Hopkins syndrome, a very rare genetic autism-spectrum disorder that can cause profound developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, seizures and other problems. His “blue sky dream,” he said, would be for Bobcat339 to provide a breakthrough for those Pitt Hopkins patients.

“That’s why it’s important to make these first set of molecular tools, these new molecules. Because it can kind of test the idea: Where is the therapeutic relevance for these things?” he said.

While it could take a decade or longer for Bobcat339 to wind its way through the drug discovery pipeline, researchers are already excited about its possibilities. Scientists began contacting Bates as soon as Kennedy and his students published their research at the beginning of the year.

“Mostly cancer researchers,” Kennedy said. “They want to see how their experiments react when this is introduced.”

About a dozen academic labs have asked for the molecule for their own research. Bates has been happy to share.

“That’s a lot for early on,” Kennedy said. “The fact you could catch the attention of a dozen labs, and they each have several dozen scientists … it makes me feel great that it’s being recognized. I think the students are shocked by (the requests).”

Kennedy and a new group of student researchers is looking at how well the molecule can penetrate the blood-brain barrier — an important next step for Bobcat339 to fulfill its potential.

“The hard part was finding something that works,” Kennedy said. “Once you find something that works, you can tweak it.”

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