Medicine researchers mix in handful of chemistry awards to long list of accomplishments

(Edmonton) A one-of-a-kind Canadian research group, based in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta, has swept the awards handed out by the Canadian Society of Chemistry for analytical and environmental chemistry.

Chris Le, Xingfang Li and Jonathan Martin, professors in the Division of Analytical and Environmental Toxicology in the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology, have all been recognized by this national scientific society for their respective research programs. The division is the only one in Canada to apply the basic science of chemistry and toxicology to study human health and environmental factors that affect human health.

“We really appreciate support from the people within the chemistry community,” said Le, the division’s director. “This is particularly gratifying considering that our department is not a traditional chemistry department. People are recognizing this unique interdisciplinary program we have built here that relies on chemistry fundamentals, but is also extended to applications in human health.”

Le was the big winner, taking home two awards: the 2011 Maxxam Award, handed out to a scientist who has made a distinguished contribution to the field of analytical chemistry, and the Environment Research and Development Award, given to a scientist who has made distinguished contributions and/or developments in the field of environmental chemistry or environmental chemical engineering.

Le is well known for his work with arsenic. Currently Le is looking at arsenic levels in well water in rural areas and identifying hot spots of groundwater arsenic. 

“One third of people rely on groundwater,” said Le. “It’s a very important area. Currently the well water from rural areas is not automatically measured [for arsenic levels].”

He’s also studying the molecular components of arsenic and how it could be used to treat some kinds of cancers, because it is already used to treat one type of leukemia called acute promyelocytic leukemia.

His work at the molecular level also landed him a new method of discovery of very trace amounts of molecules, which could down the road help health-care workers diagnose disease earlier. 

Associate professor Jonathan Martin won the Fred Beamish Award, which is handed out to an investigator early in their career. His work is in two areas, one of them being the detoxification of oilsands tailing ponds. Using high-resolution mass spectrometry, his research group has been able to identify the chemicals in the toxic tailings pond mixture with more detail than anyone else. In the lab he’s been able to accelerate detoxification in samples from tailings ponds. With the same high-resolution mass spectrometry technique, he’s also able to analyze the Athabasca river to find out if tailings ponds are leaking in to it.

“The big challenge is that the river itself flows through oilsands so it’s largely believed there is a natural contribution of naphthenic acids and other things in the river,” said Martin, who adds that his high-resolution technique enables them to distinguish between natural contributors and processed acids.

The other side of his research he has developed involves analytical techniques that provide a new window to observe how perfluorinated compounds, some of which are carcinogens, move around the world and into humans. These PFCs are found in surface treatment chemicals commonly used in households across North America.

Associate Professor Xingfang Li rounds out the group of award winners, taking home the 2010 W.A.E. McBryde Medal for a young scientist who has made a significant achievement in pure or applied analytical chemistry.

Li focuses on byproducts from disinfected water that can lead to an increased risk of bladder cancer. She’s hoping to identify which byproducts lead to this type of cancer.

“We can help engineers optimize the disinfecting process to reduce that chemical risk,” said Li.

Her group has also developed a way to monitor tiny bacteria previously undetected by regulatory agencies. This could help explain why E. coli breakouts occur despite the monitoring of products. The bacteria are so small and cannot grow on products like vegetables or nuts, but once they enter our bodies they are likely able to re-grow because of the conditions, says Li.