The campus lab that makes and sells molecules

Writer: 
April 20, 2018
Molecule, highlighted in green, that was synthesized at the SMSF

Most research labs at Duke have clear markings. A framed sign on the wall with a professor’s name; his or her own separate space protected from peons. But on the bottom floor of the Levine Science Research Center, only a crinkled sheet of printer paper— hanging from another lab’s entrance—gives away the Small Molecule Synthesis Facility. To find the SMSF, the paper explains, you need to go “straight ahead through this door” and “follow the corridor down to the ice machine.” On the right is your destination.

“There’s a lot of symbolism in us being in the sub-basement; it’s hard for people to find us,” says David Gooden Ph.D. ’06, who directs the facility. The SMSF is available for use by all university investigators and fills an unglamorous but necessary niche: It provides researchers with the molecules they need for their cutting-edge work quickly and affordably. And sometimes, when a molecule isn’t available elsewhere, the facility figures out how to make it.

The service originated in 2003 as part of a chemical-biology initiative under former director of Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative Eric Toone. After the main program faded, the SMSF “rose out of the ashes,” its work attractive to researchers in a variety of fields across the medical center as well as engineering and environmental science departments. Gooden mentions that Duke was one of the first universities to build a custom, contract research organization like this, and perhaps the best proof of its importance is the constant demand. “In eleven years here,” he says, “I’ve had only one day where there wasn’t a project.”

The lab is busy because it has value. Private labs will sometimes charge as much as five times more for a molecule than the SMSF, which doesn’t have to make a profit. More important, instead of researchers wasting months filling out paperwork to get chemicals from an outside source, “what I can do is go down to an incredibly bright guy and say, ‘Could you make this for me?’ ” explains Donald McDonnell, Glaxo-Wellcome Professor of molecular cancer biology and professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, whose research centers on identifying drug targets in cancer cells.

The facility “really helps to get over inertia,” says McDonnell. “I’ve got the attention span of a Drosophila. If I come up with an idea that I think is good, I want to work on it today or tomorrow.” To do so he might call up Gooden; they’ll sketch out a few ideas. Gooden will review the literature, and in a few days he’ll come back with a strategic approach. In a field where most ideas fail, the lab’s responsiveness and flexibility is a resource. Without SMSF, Mc- Donnell says, “iterative research would disappear.”

In early February, Gooden’s finalizing a project for researchers at the Duke VA Medical Center, who are looking at ways to kill cancer tumors. A purple hydrogen-filled balloon sits atop the flask in which the process’ final step is being completed; it’ll sit overnight. The following day, Gooden attaches the previous day’s flask to a rotary evaporator where, after spinning and whirring, the solvent is removed leaving behind the pure product. He’s in a perpetual power-walk between stations to check everything, evoking his explanation to student researchers who will on occasion join him. “It’s like a game of double-dutch,” Gooden tells them. “There’s always something going on, so you have to find out where you can jump in.”

The work can seem both hectic and monotonous: Gooden notes that, as his doctoral research took place in Toone’s lab and his postdoc was in the SMSF space, he’s had the same desk and “the same squeaky chair” since 1999. But he enjoys the process, the problem-solving.

Each day, Gooden steps into a lab stocked with his 3,000 to 5,000-plus creations. Their absence once presented an obstacle to research. Now, his solutions fill two fridges. “At the end, I have this sample in a vial,” he says, “and I know the whole story that went into making that.”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.