Years of research by David G.I. Kingston, University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry in the College of Science, has helped improve the efficiency of a potent anti-cancer drug and also had helped save vital tropical forests.
Kingston was the first chemist in the United States to study the chemical qualities of paclitaxel, which is marketed as Taxol and is widely used to treat breast and ovarian cancer. In addition, he has received patents for modifications of paclitaxel molecules that improve activity of Taxol.
Kingston also studies other natural products for medical usefulness. Malaria, mycrobacterial diseases, and fungi infections are particular targets. He is the principal investigator and group leader for a biodiversity utilization and conservation project in Suriname in South America and Madagascar.
In November 2008, the National Institutes of Health renewed a five-year research grant for a total of $2.5 million to the international research group. Consistent with the Convention on Biological Diversity, Kingston will share a portion of any royalties generated by sales of pharmaceuticals developed from this work with Madagascar, the country where the research is taking place.
The award is the third competitive renewal of a research program that Kingston began in 1993. The grant was accompanied by a companion award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture of $1.25 million over a period of five years.
The International Cooperative Biodiversity Group will foster biodiversity conservation, economic development, and drug discovery in Madagascar. Kingston will lead a group at Virginia Tech that will focus on biodiversity in the areas of cancer and malaria. Research groups at other institutions will focus on immunology, neurological disease, and agrochemistry. Madagascar is home to 5 percent of the world's plant and animal species of which more than 80 percent are endemic to the region. This makes it a rich source of material for the team to screen for compounds with natural product activity of possible interest and value.
''The first naturally occurring anti-cancer drugs were isolated from the Madagascar periwinkle,'' Kingston said. ''It is our hope that we can find new anti-cancer agent from the country's plants, microbes, and marine organisms so that we can provide a benefit to cancer patients as well as reward Madagascar for preserving its biodiversity.''
Kingston's contributions live on in the names of two trees that have been named in his honor. Taxus kingstonii, also known as the Kingston yew, which grows in India, China, and Taiwan, was described by Richard Spjut in a 2007 major review of yew species published in the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. Spjut wrote, ''It was named in honor of David Kingston for his extensive work on elucidating and summarizing the taxane chemistry of the genus.''
This is not the first time Kingston has been honored with a plant naming. In 2001, a newly discovered South American tree of the genus Cordia was named Cordia kingstoniana. It was named by James Miller of the Missouri Botanical Garden who collaborated with Kingston in his international Cooperative Biodiversity Group in Suriname.
Kingston has received a number of other honors and awards. Among them are the Research Achievement Award from the American Society of Pharmacognosy, the Gene Wise Award from the Blue Ridge Section of the American Chemical Society, and the 2002 designation as a Virginia Outstanding Scientist.
He holds 14 patents and has brought in more than $10 million in external funding to Virginia Tech. Kingston has written more than 275 refereed research publications and more than 20 chapters in books and journals; he co-edited the book Anti-cancer Agents from Natural Products and also sits on the editorial boards of four scientific publications.
Kingston earned undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degrees from Cambridge University in his birthplace of England and held research and teaching positions at Queens' College, Cambridge. He worked as a biochemistry research associate, a NATO Fellow, and assistant professor of chemistry before joining the faculty at Virginia Tech in 1971.
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