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Chemistry Professor Examines Medical Uses of Metals

Photo credit: Ariana Stone

For Matt Hartings, the field of chemistry is like art. And whether examining beautiful bright red and purple proteins, making potions, or using existing elements to make new and improved compounds, the new faculty member approaches the subject with the inventiveness of an artist at work.

While at AU, Hartings plans to build on his previous work with metals. “Metals make things really interesting,” he says. “They make bright colors, they do fun things with electricity. There are all sorts of different things that happen if you add a metal to the mix.” These bright colors are as useful as they are pretty; as a graduate student at Northwestern University, Hartings used metals to make MRI contrast agents—chemicals that would light up parts of the body when a person has an MRI.

While at AU, he will explore how metals might be used to fight cancer. When kinase enzymes act on proteins, they generally insert one phosphate molecule and go on their way. But in a cancer cell, “things go haywire and get out of control,” he says. “The regulation mechanism for controlling these phosphates fails.”

While other scientists have tried slowing down the kinase enzymes or blocking the site where the kinase attaches to the protein, Hartings plans to attach a metal group to the phosphate molecule. If the metal proves to be harmful to the cells, the unregulated transfer of the metal-infused phosphate groups could potentially kill cancer cells, leaving healthy cells, with their normal rate of phosphate transfer, intact. This could provide grounds for the creation of a new anti-cancer drug.

Hartings aims to spread his passion for chemistry well beyond his lab. He has co-created a blog, ScienceGeist, which covers current science policy topics—from engineering and physics to biology and chemistry—in an accessible format. In recent weeks, for example, the blog covered President Obama’s address about the Gulf oil spill. “Good policy exists when you encourage good education and good communication,” says Hartings. “Both my co-author and I are crafting our own voice and figuring out how to talk about science and push science to a general audience.”

Hartings also aspires to conduct an educational outreach program in D.C. public schools similar to the one being pursued at the California Institute of Technology where he was a postdoctoral scholar. In this project, university scientists work with high school science classes on solar energy research with the goal of converting water into hydrogen and oxygen gas using light as the only energy source. This time around, he wants to convert carbon dioxide into something useful by mimicking the process of photosynthesis.

“The kids got really into it,” says Hartings. “They were working with lasers; they were making solar energy. From the researcher’s standpoint, what they were doing was invaluable. When you’re trying to find new materials, there are millions of combinations available and 99.999% won’t work at all. It’s finding that one magic one that will work for you. To find that combination takes both serendipity and hard work.”