Brooklyn, N.Y.—Nicholas Lease arrived at chemistry by way of biology, his original choice of study when he enrolled in college. Now, after four years at Brooklyn College and many hours in Associate Professor María Contel’s laboratory, he landed an invitation to discuss his research at the American Chemistry Society’s National Meeting and Exposition in San Diego. The metal compounds he is studying may prove to be a promising scientific breakthrough in the fight against some types of cancer. Lease’s change of heart has clearly paid off.
Soon after he discovered his unexpected interest in inorganic chemistry, Lease found information online about Contel’s research. “That’s how I found out Professor Contel was doing green chemistry,” he says, “and though I had never taken a class with her, I asked her if I could join her lab.” And he did — that simple.
Since 2007, Contel has been working with gold compounds to create an alternative cancer therapy that is less toxic than platinum-based compounds, such as cisplatin, carboplatin and oxaliplatin, which have been used since the 1970s. Contel’s knowledge of metals led her to try gold compounds that wouldn’t compromise healthy cells. All of the lab’s results are also tested with palladium, which has properties similar to gold and platinum.
For his research, Lease added an iron molecule called ferrocene, which changes the physicochemical characteristics of the resulting compounds and may be beneficial for their antitumor properties. In addition, instead of using one molecule of each — one iron and one gold — Lease decided to use two of gold plus iron, and two of palladium plus iron.
That was a breakthrough.
“The new compounds Nicholas has prepared based on iron-gold and iron-palladium are very cytotoxic in vitro against human ovarian and breast cancer cell lines,” confirms Contel. “This includes a cell line that is resistant to cisplatin,” she adds, very hopeful about Lease’s career prospects in the field.
The abstract Lease submitted to the American Chemistry Society was so persuasive that it provided him with a prestigious ACS travel award — an all-expenses-paid trip to San Diego to present his research.
“I was a bit nervous at the beginning,” Lease admits about being in front of a roomful of people from the country’s leading colleges and universities. And though he could have opted for a more informal poster presentation, he decided that talking to a crowd would provide good professional experience. “Once I got over it, things flowed very well,” he adds with confidence.
Lease received a bachelor’s degree at the 2012 Commencement Exercises, but he does not plan to pursue a master’s degree. Instead, he will go straight into a Ph.D. program in chemistry at Rutgers University — one of four schools to which he was accepted. As a first-generation college student, Lease says his family is extremely proud.
“My parents realized early on that I knew what I was doing,” says the new alumnus, whose mother, a paraprofessional, and father, a postal worker, gave him all the trust and support he needed.
“Rutgers has a well-established program and various kinds of research that appeal to me,” he says. “I will now have six months to define my area of research and choose a professor I want to work with” — not to mention five more years of study and lab work before he obtains his doctorate.
As for his career interests after earning a Ph.D., his path remains unclear. “Academia is not the only option. I might be interested in doing research for the chemical industry,” he speculates. But there is no need to rush to a decision just yet, and
Lease remains focused on the task at hand. He still needs to run more tests of the toxicity levels of the gold-iron compound, which will be sent to a laboratory in the Netherlands to be tested on cancer cell lines. “We need to know how they interact with proteins and run electro-chemistry tests before a paper can be published.”
Once he’s gone, other students will pick up where he left off. It’s the cycle of science.