Boyd E. Haley, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEST Foundation
Professor and Chairman, Chemistry Department,
of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
the Crossroads of Chemistry and Biology
living thing can be reduced to chemicals. Carbon,
hydrogen, nitrogen—these chemical elements are the
foundation for molecules that form the intricate,
three-dimensional structures we know as DNA. Scientists
at the University of Kentucky are focusing on the
chemical roots of life in a new program designed to
solve biological problems through chemistry.
Haley was one of the first scientists hired at the UK
Markey Cancer Center and was a faculty member in the
College of Pharmacy from 1985 to 1997.
federal funds have dried up for traditional chemistry
areas like weapons research, federal agencies and
pharmaceutical firms are eager to fund biological
chemistry, says Boyd Haley, chair of the chemistry
department at UK. "The Cold War is over. We've lost
federal funding to develop better war materials, so the
focus of chemical researchers has switched to things
like environmental toxins that affect biological
systems, and sensors for medical diagnostics.
we're setting up right now is an undergraduate degree
program—a degree in chemistry with an emphasis in
biological chemistry," Haley says. "If you're
a smart student, you'll realize that getting an
undergraduate degree in biological chemistry will
increase your chances of getting into and surviving
medical, dental or veterinary school, because it just so
happens that in those professional schools the major
flunk-out course is biochemistry."
clear that this is a hot job market, Haley says.
"Take a look at the number of want ads in the back
of Science, the major magazine where companies advertise
for research people. The majority of these jobs require
biological chemistry expertise."
this program began in the chemistry department, the
closest thing on the UK campus was a Ph.D. program in
biochemistry through the College of Medicine. "The
university needs all of these—undergraduate and
graduate programs—to provide a top-notch
education," Haley says. "In the Ph.D. program
they zero in on medical applications, while we are doing
a wide range of basic research. If you look at top 20
universities, they all have a biochemistry department
and a chemistry department with a biological emphasis.
chemistry varies from biochemistry in that it usually
involves application of 'heavy-duty' chemical techniques
to biological problems such as using mass spectrometry
and nuclear magnetic resonance," says Haley. He
adds that an understanding of the various areas of
chemistry, such as physical chemistry, and their
application to biological problems is more heavily
chemistry was one of 11 strong research areas identified
by UK as part of the Research Challenge Trust Fund (RCTF)
initiative. Established by the 1997 Kentucky
Postsecondary Education Act, one phase of RCTF includes
$16 million to support new faculty, graduate students
and staff in the selected areas.
biological chemistry program received $3 million to
renovate lab space and hire four research faculty and
eight research assistants. The four new faculty, in
addition to "five outstanding UK faculty" who
have been conducting research in biological chemistry,
are shaping a solid research and education enterprise,
when you launch a new program, you hire new faculty to
teach the courses," Haley says. In addition to
teaching undergraduate courses in biological chemistry,
each new faculty member will be responsible for
developing one graduate-level course in his or her area
one of the first scientists hired at the UK Markey
Cancer Center and was a faculty member in the College of
Pharmacy from 1985 to 1997. He joined the Department of
Chemistry the following year as professor and chair.
"I came to the chemistry department because I
wanted to teach graduate students," Haley says.
"The level of work I do requires people who know a
lot of chemistry."
says today's booming biological chemistry market is one
result of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which enabled small
businesses and not-for-profit organizations to retain
title to innovations made under federally funded
research programs. As a result, there was an explosion
in the number of start-up biotech companies. "All
of a sudden I can invent something, have the university
patent it, and I'm allowed to take it and convert the
new intellectual property into a business that will make
money, create jobs and serve the public," Haley
large number of jobs available today are with companies
that started out very small and are now large and have
actually overtaken the old-fashioned pharmaceutical
firms," he says. "It doesn't take a lot of
money to start one of these companies—you find a
protein that causes a disease, make an antibody to it,
develop a simple Western blot test, and start selling
your technology to the world."
himself has transformed a technology developed in his
lab into a thriving biotech company named Affinity
Labeling Technologies Inc. (ALT). He co-founded ALT in
1998 with Curt Pendergrass, who received his Ph.D. in
toxicology from UK in 1995 and worked as a postdoctoral
fellow in Haley's lab for nearly four years.
on the UK campus in the Advanced Science and Technology
Commercialization Center, known as ASTeCC, ALT develops,
manufactures and markets nucleotide photoaffinity
probes—radioactive compounds used in research and
diagnosis of disease. When these photoprobes are exposed
to ultraviolet light, they bind to the active site of
the protein, allowing it to be permanently tagged for
identification. ALT uses photoprobes to diagnose
periodontal disease and test toxicity levels before and
after tooth extraction, and is selling this technology
to a worldwide market.
recently, German scientists at the University of Göttingen
confirmed findings that Haley published in 1992 in the
proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that
proposed a diagnostic test for Alzheimer's disease.
"UK owns a patent on this, and I hope to be able to
make the test available as an aid for early Alzheimer's
diagnosis," he says.