For a hundred years chemists tried in vain to scale the "Mount Everest of organic chemistry." But the feat came fairly easily to "Sugar Ray" Lemieux of Lac La Biche, Alberta who reached the summit by synthesizing sucrose — common table sugar — in 1953. This accomplishment amazed everyone in the world of science, but was only the first in a series of carbohydrate discoveries that would change chemistry — and medicine — forever.
In fact Lemieux's career has been so active and expansive it's difficult to point to any single achievement as his greatest. Having dominated his discipline for more than 40 years, he has been almost solely responsible for moving the once-marginal study of carbohydrates into the mainstream of organic chemistry. Stated simply, he revealed how carbohydrates bind to proteins, a phenomenon crucial to "everything from cancer to embriogenesis," says fellow University of Alberta chemist, Dr. Ole Hindsgaul.
With characteristic modesty, Lemieux often claims he merely "put himself in luck's way" to become the undisputed leader of the carbohydrate revolution. And yet, "what stands out is that he's always 10 years ahead of his time, and he's a moving target," says Hindsgaul, who spearheaded a Nobel Prize nomination for Lemieux. "Whatever he's doing, other people will be doing in 10 years, and he'll be out of it — I'm still doing some of what he was doing."
It is a curious irony that one of Canada's most distinguished scientists had no definite plans to attend university in his youth. Born in northern Alberta in 1920, he was the seventh child in a family of eight. Before entering the second grade, Lemieux moved with his family to the Boyle Street area of Edmonton. In his autobiography, Explorations with Sugars, Lemieux describes the area as "an Irish-French-Ukrainian ghetto, where the main challenge was to avoid associations that could lead to reform school." However, while working at the Jasper Park Lodge one summer he met several university students and began thinking seriously about going to university. "I thought all you had to do to get a scholarship was to have high marks," he once remarked. "I learned from them that you also had to apply."
During the Depression, money was always a pressing issue for a young man contemplating his career. As far as Lemieux could tell, commercial chemists seemed to make decent salaries. And since second-year chemistry students were often paid a modest sum to perform demonstrations to freshmen, his choice of major fell quickly into focus. "In those days there were only two kinds of guys coming back to Edmonton with big cars — hockey players who made the NHL and scientists who made it to industry in the U.S.," he once told a reporter.
Lemieux graduated with an honors degree in chemistry from the U of A in 1943. His interests turned to biochemistry during doctoral studies at McGill University, where he began investigating carbohydrates and molecular structures. After receiving his PhD in 1946, he went on to Ohio State University, where he helped elucidate the molecular structure of an antibiotic called streptomycin. His first academic appointment was to the faculty of the University of Saskatchewan in 1947. He remained there two years before joining the Prairie Regional Laboratory of the National Research Council in 1949. It was there that in 1953 he became the first to synthesize sucrose.
But Lemieux's most significant breakthroughs were yet to come. A renowned scientist in hot demand, Lemieux was hired in 1954 to build a new chemistry department at the University of Ottawa, where he also served as dean of pure and applied science. While in Ottawa he did pioneering research with proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a technique used universally by chemists to this day to shed light on the structure and nature of carbohydrate molecules.
In 1961 he returned to Edmonton to join the University of Alberta's chemistry department. Here he started on the path to what many consider the major accomplishment of his illustrious career — making possible the synthesis of complex carbohydrate structures called oligosaccharides. In the late '50s, chemists became aware that these structures, which coat red blood cells and body tissue cells, were essential to cell-cell recognition and indeed carried messages crucial to the control of many cellular functions. But because an adequate quantity of natural oligosaccharides (even a milligram) was extremely difficult to obtain, studying them was virtually impossible. That hurdle was eliminated, however, when Lemieux found a way to make a synthetic version of the carbohydrate.
That may not sound like an earth-shattering breakthrough, but Lemieux had enough vision to recognize its considerable medical applications — specifically the use of the synthetic compound as an artificial antigen. When attached to proteins, oligosaccharides can be used to stimulate production of antibodies in the human body. Understanding the structure of these carbohydrates has made possible new antibiotics and blood reagents, drugs to prevent transplanted organ rejection, improved blood typing and grouping, as well as improved treatments for leukemia and hemophilia.
As a loyal Albertan, Lemieux was never content to simply turn over the fruits of his research to a foreign pharmaceutical company. Firmly believing the University and province should reap the benefits of a new and promising biotechnology industry, he established three biochemical companies himself during his career, including R&L Molecular Research Ltd., Raylo Chemicals Ltd., and Chembiomed, which was recently taken over by Synsorb Biotech of Calgary. While in operation, these companies patented a number of antibiotic drugs and helped build Alberta's knowledge-based economy.
Were it not for the seminal work of Alberta's own carbohydrate giant, much current research in immunology would simply not be possible, a fact underscored by numerous prestigious awards and honors. In 1954, at the age of just 34, Lemieux was elected a member of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1967 he became the first western Canadian to gain membership in the London-based Royal Society, and one year later was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. He has also received the Albert Einstein World Award in Science, the Hawarth Award and Medal, the Gairdner Foundation International Award, and the King Faisal International Prize in Science (the first Canadian to receive the award).
Lemieux's most recent work has focused on the role of water in molecular recognition, a hot new area of study in the '90s. According to Gary Horlick, the University of Alberta's chair of chemistry, we only now have technology sophisticated enough to take Lemieux's research to the next stage of discovery.
Published Winter 1998/99.