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Synthetic Sugar

Complex organic chemistry and the chemistry of carbohydrates are, well, complex. A profile of Albertan Raymond Lemieux's achievements in the synthesis of carbohydrates and configuration of such molecules would mean little to anyone without an advanced understanding of organic chemistry.

However, consider the following: When you pick up a peach, your brain processes the experience in terms of three dimensions. You can see and feel the fruit's height, width and depth. You can tell if it's juicy. You can observe a bruise, or turn it around and tell if the other side is mouldy. If you were to look closer at that peach, down at the molecular level, you would see that the molecules, the building blocks of this peach, also come in three dimensions.

The peach is made up of a variety of molecules, many of which are sugars. Sugar is a carbohydrate. Some sugars, such as sucrose, are simple in design. Others, such as oligosaccharides, are more complicated, and polysaccharides, are the most complex.

When Lemieux began his research and study, the existing scientific understanding of these sugar molecules was limited. Chemists had been able to synthesize, or chemically fabricate, other molecules, but no one had been able to accomplish the same feat with sucrose, common table sugar.

Lemieux realized there was very little knowledge of the shape of the sugar molecules and that knowing this was the key to truly understanding them. Once he understood their shape, he believed, he would be able to chemically fabricate them. Thanks to this insight, in 1953 at the National Research Council's Saskatoon laboratory, Lemieux became the first person to successfully synthesize sucrose.

Although the synthesis of sucrose has commonly been considered the apex of organic chemistry achievements, the molecule itself is very simple. With his success in Saskatoon, Lemieux continued his explorations with sugar, turning to the more complicated carbohydrates. With his interest in the shape of molecules and the research and help of colleagues, Lemieux synthesized the more complex sugar oligosaccharides.

This achievement has proven to be of immeasurable benefit to the medical world. Oligosaccharides are found in the thousands on the surface of red blood cells, organs and other human tissues. When an organ transplant fails, it is usually because the body of the person receiving the transplant, the host, rejects the donor organ by producing antibodies to remove the foreign "invader." This occurs because the sugar molecules from one body differ from the other. Once these molecules meet, the host recognizes that the shape of the foreign molecule is different and rejection can occur, with the donor organ destroyed within hours, possibly minutes.

Through the synthesis of oligosaccharides and understanding how their shape affects their functions, Lemieux and other chemists have been able to create antigens, which promote organ transplants.

"His work has been the key factor in converting this area of research from an academic specialization to one of great practical significance in important fields as blood typing and medical chemistry."
—Comments of the awarding committee upon presenting to Raymond Lemieux the 1992 Albert Einstein "World Award of Science"

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