Penn Doctoral Candidate Minh Nguyen Sets His Sights on Curing Diseases

Minh Nguyen says he dropped out of medical school after just one year when he realized that there was a better way to save lives.

Now a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts & Sciences, Nguyen believes the decision to leave medical school in his homeland of Vietnam and come to the United States was one of the best he’s ever made.

“Being a medical student allowed me to meet patients who suffered from all kinds of diseases and disorders,” says Nguyen. “Many of them struggled to live every day because of diseases that are currently uncured under any medical treatments. I am hoping to change the way we cure diseases, and I came to realize that the only way to help these people is through advances in medical discovery via basic scientific research.” 

His determination that research was the route to help cure disease and save lives led him ultimately to Penn. 

In 2006, Nguyen arrived in the U.S. set on studying organic chemistry, first living with family in Maryland while attending community college before being accepted to Dickinson College on a full scholarship. In January 2011, after graduating from Dickinson, his professors were so impressed with his ability that they invited him to be an adjunct faculty member for a semester, while he applied to graduate school.

Soon after being accepted at Penn, Nguyen sought out Amos B. Smith III, the Rhodes-Thompson Professor of Chemistry. While first-year Ph.D. students are not typically invited to do independent research, Smith recognized Nguyen’s potential and offered him a spot working in the Smith Group, for the summer before he began classes.

“When Nguyen came, he was already highly regarded,” says Smith. “He had an unusual background; as an undergraduate he had been asked to teach a class at Dickinson. At the time I interviewed him it was evident that he was undeniably a very special person.”

Nguyen is one of about 25 researchers and assistants currently working in the Smith lab. 

Nguyen says, “Dr. Smith’s is doing research that not a lot of people are doing in the U.S. or in the world. He has developed a method for making a very effective, less costly material or reagents used in the cross-coupling reactions that are the basis of organic synthesis needed for the construction of natural products, pharmaceutical agents, biological imaging agents and diverse functional materials.

“Dr. Smith, gives you lots of feedback,” says Nguyen. “The lab is very collaborative. Even though people are working on different research, they may help solve a problem or offer an alternative idea or opinion.”

Nguyen’s research focuses on two areas; the first is the use of polymers, chemical compounds formed by the combination of two or more smaller molecules. He has already published four papers and is the lead author on three of them.

As the lead author on a paper with Amos Smith’s group on the use of polymer supported silicon reagents for palladium catalyzed cross-coupling reactions, published in Organic Letters in March, Nguyen received the International Sabin Metal Ron Bleggi Award that carries a $5,000 prize.

Reagents are substances used in a chemical reaction to achieve a specific transformation leading to the production of other substances.

Nguyen says that these polymer supported silicon reagents “not only make it possible to produce drugs at a reduced cost, but they can be reused multiple times. This idea of doing chemistry in a more sustainable, ‘green’ way interests me.”

“Nguyen has made significant contributions in the area of developing anion relay chemistry, which allows us to move negative charge around molecules,” says Smith. “Building on the cross-coupling reaction discovery of Nobel prize-winning chemist Ei-ichi Negishi, a Penn alum, we have discovered a silicon transfer compound, which can be attached to a polymer support and thus eliminate zinc chloride required in the earlier Negishi reaction.”

Nguyen’s current research aligns with his interest in curing disease. He has embarked on a study to develop a total synthesis of Mandelalide A, a compound that holds promise for the treatment of cancer.

“Mandelalide A is a new and scarce natural product isolated from a South African tunicate that that lives in the ocean,” says Nguyen, “but there is not a good supply of it. So we are trying to make it in the lab to use in the study of cancer investigation. The Smith Group has a strong interest in and history of making biologically active compounds such as Mandelalide A that can be used in medicine.”

Of Nguyen’s research into Mandelalide A, Smith says, “He is making great strides on a total synthesis of this architecturally complex human tumor-cell inhibitory compound – quite remarkable work.

“He is one of the very best, of the now more than 125 Ph.D. students that I’ve had the great fortune to attract to my lab in my 40 years at Penn.” 

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