Chemists try to find the 'keys' to human 'locks'
Randy Metcalf/The Explorer, Research investigator Joseph Kim works in the chemistry department at Sanofi-aventis last week.

In a large new laboratory at the Sanofi-aventis Research Center in Oro Valley, chemist Mark Drew, Ph.D., eyed a round-bottom flask filled with a red-speckled, brown material.

From that substance, Drew was about to purify a compound, one of the chemical mixes created by Sanofi-aventis chemists as they seek new leads for pharmaceutical products.

Compounds "need to be clean," said Drew, who's from Hull, England, and has worked for the company in Oro Valley for six years. Investigators "need to know the thing that's causing the effect, is the thing you intend it to be."

Drew called upon a lock-and-key analogy when talking about his work. The human body has a series of receptors, the "locks," at the cellular level that can affect a person's health.

"We're designing chemical keys, a synthetic substance that fits the body's lock," Drew explained. "We're generally making keys, but not knowing what the lock really looks like.

"It's very intricate," he allows. "You're working at an atomic level."

From that red-speckled, brown substance, Drew would derive a "nice, white, crystallized solid" by the end of the day.

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