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UCLA's Yi Tang receives Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from EPA

yi-tang-250px.jpgby Wileen Wong Kromhout

Yi Tang, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and a professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences, has been awarded the prestigious 2012 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The annual award recognizes pioneering chemical technologies developed by leading researchers and industrial innovators who are making significant contributions to pollution prevention in the U.S. — including the design of safer and more sustainable chemicals, processes and products that will protect citizens from exposure to harmful materials.

Tang's winning technology resulted in a new, less-hazardous manufacturing process for simvastatin, a leading cholesterol-lowering statin drug.

"Yi's innovative research in the area of natural product biosynthesis and biocatalysis will not only lead to significant improvements in health care and medicine but will also lead to a safer and healthier global environment," said Vijay K. Dhir, dean of UCLA Engineering. "We are proud of the recognition and the important contributions he continues to make."

In 2006, simvastatin, originally developed by Merck, was the second-largest selling statin in the world, bringing in approximately $5 billion in sales. Today, it is the most frequently prescribed statin, with more than 94 million prescriptions filled in 2010, according to industry tracker IMS Health. 

Though the drug is manufactured from a natural product, the traditional synthesis was a wasteful, multi-step chemical process that used large amounts of hazardous reagents.

Tang conceived of a synthesis that instead used an engineered enzyme and a practical, low-cost feedstock. He partnered with Codexis Inc. — a developer of industrial enzymes that enable the cost-advantaged production of biofuels, bio-based chemicals and pharmaceutical intermediates — to optimize both the enzyme and the chemical process for commercial use. Codexis will also be presented with the EPA award as part of this collaboration.

"Receiving this award shows the impact that can be made in a highly synergistic collaboration between academic and industrial research teams," Tang said. "The development and optimization of the process have been highly rewarding for my research group. Receiving this recognition from the EPA two years after my colleague James Liao received the same award is a strong testament to the quality and impact of the research that is being conducted in the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UCLA."

James Liao, who hold's UCLA's Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Chair in Chemical Engineering, was the first UCLA professor to receive the award in the program's 15-year history. He was recognized in 2010 for his groundbreaking work recycling carbon dioxide for the biosynthesis of higher alcohols that can be used as alternative-transportation fuels or chemical feedstock. 

"Working with Professor Tang to develop this breakthrough biocatalytic process is proof of the practical results that can be delivered by academic–industrial partnerships," said Gjalt Huisman, Ph.D., vice president of product planning for pharmaceuticals at Codexis. "This is Codexis' third Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in the last six years and was only possible through our collaboration with Dr. Tang and applying our CodeEvolver–directed evolution technology platform to enable the resulting positive environmental impacts."

The resulting process, which has already produced more than 10 metric tons of simvastatin, greatly reduces hazard and waste, is cost-effective, and meets the needs of millions of consumers. At present, the process is being used in Europe and India, and it may eventually lead to an annual production of several hundreds of tons of simvastatin. 

Tang, an expert on natural product biochemistry, engineered biosynthesis, biocatalysis and protein engineering, and biomaterials, has won several notable awards, including the David and Lucille Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering, the National Institutes of Health's Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering, a Sloan Research Fellowship and, most recently, the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award from the American Chemical Society.

Tang and his group have published several papers in prominent peer-reviewed journals —  including Science, Nature, Chemical Biology and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — on smart nanocapsule delivery systems for use in protein therapy; the use of E.
coli to produce antibiotic and anticancer drugs; and the successful reconstitution of enzymes to synthesize lovastatin. Simvastatin is a semi-synthetic derivative of lovastatin.

By recognizing groundbreaking scientific solutions to real-world environmental problems, the EPA's Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Program has, over nearly two decades, managed to significantly reduce the hazards associated with designing, manufacturing and using chemicals.

According to the EPA, winning technologies like Tang's, are responsible for reducing the use or generation of more than 199 million pounds of hazardous chemicals, saving 21 billion gallons of water and eliminating 57 million pounds of carbon dioxide, in addition to significant energy and cost savings.