Chemist Honored for Lifetime of Discovery
EVER SINCE Jenny Pickworth Glusker got her first chemistry set, she has been fascinated with how substances interact. Growing up in England during World War II, she spent a lot of time having “chemistry contests” with her friends.
“We would compete to see who could get the best colors and smells,” recalls the longtime Fox Chase chemist. “From a very early age, I was drawn to what chemists do—I wanted to figure out why materials react with each other in certain ways.”
“Chemistry is the key
how the body works.”
Glusker has spent her nearly 60-year career doing just that, from studying and mapping the structures of molecules to unraveling how enzymes interact in the body. Her research helps to shed light on the processes that go astray when tumors develop so appropriate interventions can be developed.
“Chemistry is the key to understanding how the body works,” Glusker explains. “By learning about the science behind biological processes, we can better inform the design of therapies that treat diseases like cancer.”
In November, she received the prestigious John Scott Medal for her research. Named for a renowned Scottish chemist, the award has special meaning for Glusker, whose mother was Scottish. It also places her in the company of fellow recipients such as Marie Curie and Thomas Edison, who also made exceptional contributions to the “comfort, welfare and happiness of mankind.”
One of Glusker’s most notable scientific achievement dates to her graduate-student days in the early 1950s. While at England’s Oxford University, she contributed to the discovery of the chemical formula and structure of vitamin B12, a water-soluble vitamin found in foods such as liver that is essential for healthy nervous system function and blood formation. The finding constituted a milestone, unlocking the shape of the largest known molecule at the time and leading to a better understanding of how cells use energy to carry out chemical reactions.
‘THE CENTRAL SCIENCE’
CHEMISTRY is the science of matter—especially its chemical reactions, but also its composition, structure, and properties. Chemistry is concerned with atoms and their interactions, particularly the properties of chemical bonds—the attraction between atoms through which they form molecules. It is sometimes called “the central science” because it connects physics with other natural sciences, such as geology and biology.
X-RAY CRYSTALLOGRAPHY is a method of determining the arrangement of atoms within a crystal in which a beam of X-rays strikes the crystal and diffracts, or spreads in multiple directions. From the angles and intensities of the diffracted beams, a crystallographer can determine the positions of the atoms in the crystal, as well as their chemical bonds and other characteristics. Since a variety of organic and inorganic materials—including salts, metals, and minerals—can form crystals, X-ray crystallography has been fundamental to many scientific fields. It is the primary method for determining the structures of biological molecules including proteins and nucleic acids.
Perhaps most importantly, the discovery also helped to eradicate pernicious anemia in the late 1960s. Caused by vitamin B12 deficiency, at the time the potentially fatal disease could be treated only by ingesting large amounts of raw liver. By identifying B12’s chemical formula, Glusker and her mentor Dorothy Hodgkin—who received the Nobel Prize for her efforts—enabled scientists to determine how bacteria manufactured the vitamin and how it could be synthesized in the laboratory.
The vitamin is now given by injection to treat pernicious anemia and other conditions.
It was at Oxford that the budding scientist met an American chemist named Donald Glusker, whom she married. In 1955, after finishing her graduate work, she moved to the United States with Donald and became one of the first women to be accepted into the California Institute of Technology’s prestigious doctoral program in chemistry.
The climate was challenging for female scientists. “There was a strange feeling about women in chemistry at that time,” she recalls. “Most potential employers thought that a woman who had a doctoral degree in chemistry should either work in a library or stop working as soon as she got married and had children.” Glusker had other plans.
After leaving Caltech, she accepted a position at the Institute for Cancer Research, which would become the scientific branch of Fox Chase, in the laboratory of Arthur Lindo Patterson. Patterson was a leading expert in X-ray crystallography—a method of using X-ray diffraction by crystals to determine the structure of molecules. For Glusker, it was a chance to continue the work she had begun as a student. After Patterson died in 1966, she became head of the crystallography lab. She has been conducting critical research at the Center ever since.
Currently, Glusker focuses on determining the structures of anti-tumor agents, as well as chemical carcinogens such as those found in cigarette smoke. She also explores the structure of enzymes that control processes such as the growth of cells in the body. Such enzymes are often damaged or absent in patients with cancer, allowing for abnormal cell growth.
“All I have ever strived to do is gain a better understanding of what is going on around me and share that understanding with others,” Glusker reflects. “I can only hope that, through my work, I’ve done that.”