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CELEBRATING SCIENCE!

CELEBRATING SCIENCE IN OUR COMMUNITY

Click here to tell your story

Calling all scientists, science enthusiasts, nerds and geeks!
We want to hear from you! Tell us your story about why science is important to you.

Tu Anh Tran

Jenny Ballif, Molecular Biologist

Why I love science:
When I was 20 years old I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. This cancer was first named in the 1800s. For more than 100 years, cases of Hodgkin's Lymphoma were described and recorded, and the results were uniformly fatal. In the latter part of the 1900s, teams of scientists conducted careful research to develop a treatment for Hodgkin's, which was one of the first cancers to respond to radiation therapy. Because of the dedication of these scientists, I was able to view my cancer diagnosis as a detour rather than a death sentence. I'm a cancer survivor because of science.

Tu Anh Tran

Lynn Lanier, Scientist

Why I love science:
The making of methotrexate, Lynn Lanier

I remember one fall in the mid ‘70’s, I was working as a process supervisor in the Monsanto Research
Corporation pilot plant.  We were scaling up a process developed by one of the best organic chemists I’ve ever known, Dr. Ellard.  It was a 12-step synthesis involving a multitude of exotic chemicals.  We ran 12 separate procedures in 100 to 500-gallon glass lined vessels to make the final product.  (Think a large version of the “Breaking Bad” lab, except our vessels were larger, lined inside with blue glass, and set halfway through a second-floor steel deck, so their bottoms stuck out below.)

The product was methotrexate.  We were making it for the National Institutes of Health, who had 100 patients taking the drug to treat cancer, and their supplies were running out.  The previous supply was made by another company in small lab equipment, and they couldn’t make enough drug to continue
the treatments.   

It was my job to figure out how to make enough to fulfill the NIH needs and to train the technicians on the steps to take to make two intermediate chemicals each requiring 5 to 6 steps.  The two intermediate chemicals would be combined in a final step to make the product, methotrexate.

I shared shift supervision with George, a biologist.  He supervised midnight to noon and I supervised from noon to midnight – often 7 days per week.  We would meet at noon to assess our progress and check the analytical results. I would then modify the procedures as needed for the next 24 hours.

Most nights I remember coming home around midnight and turning on the TV to unwind. On Saturdays I caught an incredibly funny program with a guy giving a newscast and falling off the stage and people dressed up as bees doing the bee bop.  I had no idea that it was the first season of Saturday Night Live – I was never home in time to see the opening of the show.

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving we finished making the two intermediates and were ready to combine them to make methotrexate.  Dr. Ellard warned us that this procedure was sensitive to temperature, but more importantly, water.  Even the hint of water would ruin the product.  Knowing
this I split the two intermediates each into two parts so if the first batch didn’t work, we would have a second chance.

Our technicians prepared a 100-gallon glass lined reactor for the final step.  They dried the vessel with alcohol and heat, blew out the vents, and prepared the solvent, reagents, and two intermediates.  Following the procedure, they combined everything and stirred the prescribed time, then took a sample to
the lab.

RUINED – somehow water had gotten into the reactor.

About two days later the bosses from the NIH flew in from Washington to our Dayton, Ohio plant.  Dr. Ellard had informed them that the batch was ruined – and we couldn’t deliver the drug. We sat around a conference table, and they said something like, ‘if you don’t deliver the methotrexate within a short time, patients might die.”

I was still in charge of the making the methotrexate.  I had the technicians tear down the pipes and other equipment attached to the 100-gallon reactor.  After we inspected everything thoroughly they put it back together.

They added the solvent, the reagents, and the first intermediate to the reactor.  I stood over the vessel manway and peered in.  Everything looked normal, but the tension was palpable.  I said to proceed,
and the lead technician added the second intermediate.  We cooked it a low temperature for the
prescribed amount of time and took a sample.

SUCCESS.

I’m not sure if it was Thanksgiving Day, I had lost all track of time.  I had the technicians install a pipe from the bottom of the vessel to a filter we installed in an unused first floor laboratory. We didn’t want to contaminate the final product by filtering it in the open chemical plant.  The filter was like a colander except it was made of white porcelain and it held 50 gallons of liquid.  Dr. Ellard, George, the technicians and I stood near the filter while a technician opened the valve. A bright orange/yellow liquid emerged.  The
liquid drained revealing a filter full of the most gorgeous yellow/orange crystals I’d ever seen.

To this day methotrexate continues to be used to treat many ailments.  It’s one of the more successful drugs used to treat childhood leukemia.

March information

Date: April 14, 2018
Time: 10:00am to 1:00pm
Location: 1025 S. 1st Street, Las Vegas (Art Square)

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