Taylor earns ACS accolades

Edward Taylor

Edward Taylor Photo illustration: Denise Applewhite

Princeton chemist Edward Taylor, whose discoveries led to the development of the blockbuster anti-cancer drug Alimta, has been inducted into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame and chosen to receive the 2010 Alfred Burger Award in Medicinal Chemistry from the American Chemical Society. Taylor also will be inducted into the ACS Division of Medicinal Chemistry Hall of Fame next year.

Taylor, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Organic Chemistry Emeritus, received a special recognition for his accomplishments at the Dec. 18 "Celebrate Princeton Invention" reception.

Taylor's achievements, according to Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman, offer up an ideal case of what can happen when the efforts of high-level basic researchers are combined with inspired leadership from industry and government.

"There is no better example of how this kind of partnership plays out for the benefit of humankind," Tilghman said during the event. "I hope all of you know the wonderful story of Ted's intellectual curiosity about a chemical that led ultimately to the discovery that the chemical inhibited the growth of mammalian cells, which led to a very long partnership with Eli Lilly that ultimately led to FDA approval of an anticancer drug called Alimta that today is prolonging and saving the lives of cancer victims."

Taylor, who spent more than four decades on the Princeton faculty, transferred to emeritus status in 1997. As a graduate student at Cornell University, he found himself fascinated by reports of a compound obtained from spinach and liver that had a unique chemical structure with a nucleus previously only observed in the pigments of butterfly wings.

This compound from liver, which we know now as folic acid, proved to be essential for the synthesis of both DNA and RNA, and for the growth of cells. Intrigued by observations that changes to the structure of folic acid could transform it from a growth-promoting to a growth-inhibiting compound, Taylor devoted his career to finding an altered form of the molecule that would kill cancer cells, while allowing healthy cells to function normally.

In partnership with scientists at Eli Lilly and Co., Taylor's efforts led to the development of Alimta, which was approved for the treatment of malignant pleural mesothelioma by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2004. The drug has since received three additional FDA approvals, most recently in July when the compound became the first chemotherapy approved for use as a maintenance therapy to extend survival for patients with locally advanced or metastatic nonsquamous non-small cell lung cancer. Although no drugs exist to cure lung cancer, Alimta has been successful in treating the disease, improving the quality of life and extending the lifespan of millions of cancer patients in nearly 100 countries around the globe with fewer side effects than many other chemotherapeutic agents.

Taylor's previous honors include the ACS's Heroes of Chemistry Award, which he received in conjunction with two of his collaborators at Lilly, the International Society of Heterocyclic Chemistry Senior Award in Heterocyclic Chemistry and the Research and Development Council of New Jersey's Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award for Invention.