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Now Available: Innovators Under 35 2013 See The 2013 List »

Pehr A. B. Harbury, 34

Stanford University

Rational drug design and combinatorial chemistry are the Felix and Oscar of biochemistry. The first aims to design new compounds from scratch--the other scoops them up after a throw of the chemical dice. But these opposites are no odd couple in Pehr Harburys hands. Harbury specializes in the finicky, Felix-like business of designing proteins on a computer, modeling them down to the level of individual atomic bonds. The goal is to create proteins that can catalyze chemical reactions that are not naturally found in living organisms. If successful, "designer enzymes" could revolutionize synthetic organic chemistry and provide new tools for drug discovery.

Like Oscar, the lab’s second line of research loves a gamble. Harbury is coming up with ways to produce better drugs via "molecular evolution." This variant of the combinatorial chemistry theme is a trial-and-error method that mimics how the body’s immune system fends off invading pathogens by mixing and matching molecules until it hits on just the right antibody. According to Harbury, this two-pronged approach is a good bet to adapt life’s mechanisms in ways that serve both science and medicine.


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