Sir David MacMillan Explains How Photocatalysis Instruments Advance Biological Research
Sir David MacMillan, a Professor at Princeton University, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry based on his work with Benjamin List to develop a new type of catalysis that builds upon small organic molecules, which can be used, for example, in pharmaceutical research and has made chemistry more environmentally friendly. As David shares in the talk below, 90% of industrial-scale chemical reactions use catalysis, and 35% of global GDP is based on catalysis. His research in this area, and his work with Acceled to inspire and inform the design of the cLight, can help to further the work of researchers worldwide in their understanding of chemistry and biology.
“Everything is made from a chemical reaction. If you look around my office, everything is made from a chemical reaction.”
David, thank you for making time to speak with us. You worked with Iain MacMillan, CEO of Acceled, in the early stages of the development of cLight. Can you tell us about that collaboration?
In perhaps the third generation of our catalysis work, we understood that we need a new system to successfully perform micromarking experiments, as we moved into exploring biomarkers. Acceled spent a lot of time thinking through the problem we faced and came out with a product that allowed us to do a high level of workflow that wasn’t previously possible. Part of the challenge was creating a setup to employ vessels used for biology which is very different than vessels for chemistry. Iain had to create a design for these vessels to fit into how light is going to be used. The resulting cLight is ideal for cell research workflows.
Existing systems had limitations that impacted our repeatability. A lot of researchers have had to build homegrown systems—going to Home Depot to buy the best quality LEDs they could get their hands on. Iain’s company standardized ways to do light-driven research in chemistry space, and now with cLight, biology researchers all over the world are using this to further their work.
With multiple plates, we’re able to conduct more experiments simultaneously. The uniformity of light across the whole system provides the repeatability these experiments require because we’re working on these cells widely distributed in an explosion of light.
Where do you see the most promising applications for photocatalysis and the cLight?
What’s great is the versatility across any area of biology that involves cells--any given biological system based on cells. This micromapping involves studying systems of any type of cell. Acceled is now doing for biology researchers what they did for chemistry. We have never had this type of access to light infrastructure. We can now plug and play this system for biomarker research.
One of the big values of the technology Iain has developed is that this light system allows you to conduct all these experiments under mild enough conditions, so you don’t interfere with the nature of the cell. In biology, the systems are delicate, unlike chemistry where you can beat up chemicals. The temperature control is ideal for biology research.
What research areas are you watching?
There is so much happening in this field. From neuroscience to molecular glues to condensates—all very hot right now. The cell research happening today can impact everything from cancer to Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s to COVID research.
And you—what are you working on now?
All of those things, and other things too…working with some of the best biologists in the world to get new insights into heart disease, and cancer—using chemical tools including light to understand biology in new ways. If you understand biology better, it is easier to medicinally intervene. Photocatalysis is helping us to understand mechanisms that will largely impact drug discovery.