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2022 - 2026

Smart Medicine and Chirality

Fundamental research by Nobel Laureate Ben Feringa

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Fundamental Research

In 2016, professor Feringa won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his revolutionary design of a nanoscale motor: a molecular machine much thinner than a human hair.

In the future, molecular machines could lead to groundbreaking inventions in the development of new materials, new medical technologies or systems for energy storage.

Thanks to an anonymous donor, the UEF is supporting professor Feringa's latest project that builds on his award-winning invention with two new lines of research:

Chirality: the mystery of the origins of life

Photopharmacology: exploring advancements in smart medicine

Chirality and the Signature of Life

Molecules are the fundamental building blocks of all matter. They are also chiral (named after the Greek word “cheir” for hand). Each molecule exists in two forms that are each other’s mirror image, just like a pair of human hands.

But most molecules in our body are either left-handed (DNA cells or sugars) or right-handed (proteins): they have an inherent bias towards one side. This phenomenon is called homochirality, and is considered to be the signature of life.

Homochirality is vital for the functioning of the human body: without it, molecular recognition, information processing and cell replication would be inconceivable.

It is also one of the greatest mysteries for scientists: it is not understood why the essential particles of life are handed. Unraveling this mystery would drastically expand possibilities for innovation in medical technology, engineering and the sustainable production of chemicals.

Photopharmacology: Smart Medicine

Smart medicine is the next frontier for healthcare: high precision medications with bioactive compounds that can be switched on or off, just like a light switch.

In addition to his work on molecular machines, Professor Feringa has done pioneering research in the field of photopharmacology. Back in 2011, he developed antibiotics with antibacterial properties that are activated when exposed to light.

Smart antibiotics allow for high precision therapy: they are able to fight off bacteria precisely in those areas that are infected. Future applications could include cancer treatments that can directly target and penetrate tumor cells which would otherwise be out of reach.

This technology also enables controlled timing of compound activation. Professor Feringa’s study could help develop chemotherapy drugs that are activated only when necessary, allowing for treatment without the severe side effects associated with current treatment options.

Ben Feringa

Ben Feringa has been a full professor in Organic Chemistry at the University of Groningen since 1988, holding the distinguished Jacobus van 't Hoff Chair of Molecular Sciences at the Stratingh Institute for Chemistry since 2004.

In 2016, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the design and synthesis of molecular machines (pictured). He has been an Academy board member at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) since 2008, a member of the European Research Council’s Scientific Board and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He heads the Feringa Group, an international research program for organic chemistry. Professor Feringa has received numerous accolades, including the NWO Spinoza Award (2004) and the RSC Organic Stereochemistry Award (2008).

After winning the Nobel prize in 2016, professor Feringa has spent additional time visiting schools as an ambassador for science and the UG. Raising more awareness around research and education is an important priority for his new partnership with the UEF.

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