From metal coating to medical miracles: How chemistry is at the core of an international first that could transform the world’s metals industry and lead to new cancer-fighting technologies

New Frontiers in Research Fund | Published: 2022-03-01 12:00 PM (eastern)

It’s the moment every chemist works towards and one day hopes to achieve: the discovery of something big. For organic chemist Cathleen Crudden, that moment happened in 2012, after hearing an inspirational talk at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

“We had been working on this technology for single metal atoms with other people for 10 years,” recalls Crudden. “A good friend of mine, Dr. Peter McBreen, was giving a talk on carbenes on metal surfaces and other types of organic-to-metal interactions. I thought, ‘What? Has anybody ever put these two things together?’ That is, a very easy-to-make, stable, organic molecule and interesting metal surfaces.”

So Crudden, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Metal Organic Chemistry, and a chemistry professor at Queen’s University, left the lecture and immediately called her lab assistant, eagerly proclaiming that they should give her idea a try. Her team was doubtful at first, but the outcome was near magic.

“It worked,” Crudden laughs. “It worked amazingly!”

Crudden’s team had developed a molecule that works as a thin layer, binding to a metal surface and changing its properties. That coating, she says, may be able to protect metals from the environment, resulting in a more durable product with an expected longer lifespan.

Corrosion is a problem ... costing Canadians $66 billion dollars a year. If we just improve metal coatings, we’d be able to save 25% of that.

“Think of a car or a pipeline,” Crudden says. “The exterior is oxide, it is metal, it is inorganic. If you want to paint it or you want to protect it from rust, you’re putting something organic on top and, like oil and water, they just don’t mix. What we’re trying to do is change the surface of the metal so that it looks organic, and the paint is, like, ‘Yes, this is where I want to be.’”

Crudden—who had asked herself, ‘Has nobody ever done this before?’—worked with her team to test the idea, and filed a patent on the chemistry that is now getting international attention. She is the nominated principal investigator of a team of researchers awarded $24 million through the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) Transformation stream. Over the next six years, Crudden and her team of fellow scientists will test her chemistry’s applications and durability. This technology could transform the world’s metals industry.

“Corrosion is a problem that you are stuck with, costing Canadians $66 billion dollars a year,” says Janine Mauzeroll, one of the project’s co-principal investigators. Mauzeroll is a bio-electrochemist with a specialty in corrosion science, and a professor at McGill University in Montréal. “Basically, we’re wasting 3.4% of our GDP every year on maintaining and replacing metals. If we just improve metal coatings, we’d be able to save 25% of that $66 billion a year. That’s a lot of money.”

This technology is expected to work on anything metal, from cars to airplanes to pipelines. This chemistry may also have huge impacts on human health and could transform radiation therapy used to treat cancer patients worldwide.

“This is truly transformational at its core,” says project co-principal investigator Gang Zheng, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Cancer Nanomedicine and associate research director at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

Zheng has focused his career on developing clinically translatable technologies to fight cancer. He says Crudden’s coating could attach to the gold nanoparticles used in radiation therapy, resulting in an extremely precise treatment. That precision, Zheng says, may also result in a one-time radiation treatment. 

“Imagine the difference this could make, especially for individuals in remote Indigenous communities, who currently have to spend a whole month in hospital at a cancer centre in the city for treatment. A one-time treatment would mean they don’t have to come to the hospital or stay in a hotel for the entire month. Now imagine being able to keep increasing the radiation dose without killing healthy cells. Then, imagine you can overcome radiation resistance. That is a worldwide goal and now we’re pursuing this.”

Zheng has assembled a team of chemists and physicians to take this research “from the benchside to the bedside”. They will test the technology first on the types of cancers that have historically not responded well to radiation therapy: pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer and melanoma. His team has the ambitious goal of starting human clinical trials by the end of the six-year project.

“This new chemistry, we think, will spawn a new generation of radiation medicine,” says Zheng.

“This has all come out of very basic research,” Crudden adds. “It is fantastic that the Government [of Canada] is funding research like this to more internationally competitive levels. This will allow us to do so many incredible things.”

A major part of the NFRF Transformation funding will allow the team to investigate the best processes to apply the coating, and how to make it easily accessible to manufacturers worldwide. They will also test the longevity of the technology and work with industry leaders to figure out how to produce it on a large enough scale to meet demand.

“We are going to be pushing these coatings to failure,” says Paul Ragogna, a materials chemist and one of the project’s co-principal investigators, from Western University in London, Ontario. Ragogna calls the NFRF Transformation investment “game-changing.”

This new chemistry, we think, will spawn a new generation of radiation medicine.

“Usually, we operate in an academic lab at very small scales when we make molecules—like hundreds of milligrams,” adds Ragogna. “We need thousands of kilograms of this if it’s really going to be successful. One of the first things we need to think about is how we can mass produce this product.”

Because this coating will be used on metals, such as pipelines, on ships in the ocean, and in humans for cancer treatment, Mauzeroll’s research will focus on the product's safety.

“This could impact people's health, so one of the key objectives of the six-year project is to systematically test the toxicity, so that at the end of the process we’re not left with a coating that is toxic or polluting to the environment,” says Mauzeroll.

The team agrees that it is Crudden’s chemistry and natural curiosity that has brought them together on this project.

“When I started this work, it was a fundamental interest,” Crudden says. “I had no idea—zero idea—that it could be applied in any of these areas. That is pretty exciting and truly how fundamental research should work.”

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