Saving Lives Through Chemistry
Eli Jones is synthesizing Lindbergin E, a drug discovered in 2017 that is extracted from a fern in Brazil. Scientists have found the drug to have the most potent medicinal activity in treating a disease called leishmaniasis, which Eli says is caused by the bite of a sand fly infected with protozoa that causes painful ulcers and internal organ damage. It affects people primarily in the subtropics, and is often fatal if not treated. The drugs currently used to treat leishmaniasi have high failure rates — up to 50% — or permanent side effects such as organ damage. Hence, the need for Eli’s groundbreaking research.
Not a single chemist, Eli says, has published a paper about synthesizing Lindbergin E yet. And, it’s a structure Eli, through research, has found is in more than 16 natural products or drugs that are extracted from plants, drugs that can be used to treat a variety of ailments — among them, HIV. By publishing a paper on a good way to synthesize it, Eli says he hopes to give the world access to not only this relevant molecule in Lindbergin E, but also to the molecule in the other 16 drugs with medicinal properties. In addition, because of the molecule’s three-dimensional orientation in space, he has to find a way to synthesize it asymmetrically, which he says is a difficult process that, if he can develop it, would have applications to other research.
Perhaps the most remarkable part? Eli is a senior at Jackson High School.
His interest in chemistry began when he took an online chemistry course as a freshman in high school. After realizing he loved it, he took an AP chemistry course, where he discovered organic chemistry, the study of carbon-containing molecules. His cousin gave him her old organic chemistry textbook from her college days; Eli read it over his summer vacation and says he “couldn’t put it down.” He then reached out to Dr. Sajan Silwal, assistant professor of chemistry at Southeast Missouri State University, and asked if he could audit one of his courses. Eli says he “loved taking the tests,” and by the end of the semester, Dr. Silwal invited him to work in his research lab, where Eli began his synthesis of Lindbergin E.
Synthesizing a molecule is essentially making something found in nature — in this case, the drug extracted from the Brazilian fern — synthetically. This is more practical in manufacturing drugs than extracting it from the plant in the wild.
“It’s really architecture on an angstrom scale,” Eli says. “The world’s smallest architect. And it really is like building a house, you know — you have to start with your foundation. … And I add things to it, I build on top of it, and by the end, I have a molecule that looks a lot like Lindbergin E.”
When he’s not at school, he spends most of his time — around nine hours each day — at Southeast Missouri State University, studying organic chemistry and working on his research in the lab; he is almost finished with this research project. After he publishes his paper on it, he plans to begin working on a new project, this time focusing on titanium chemistry, a new field that works to substitute toxic metals used in industrial processes for titanium, a metal so harmless it’s found in toothpaste. Through this, Eli hopes to find more economically-viable and safer drug manufacturing processes for both people and the environment.
After he graduates from high school in May 2021, Eli plans to study chemistry at the undergraduate level before pursuing his PhD in organic chemistry and then earning his post-doc, so he can become a professor who teaches and leads his own group of researchers while also proposing his own research. In addition to being a remarkable scientist, he is a gifted teacher who says he “loves seeing the looks on [people’s] faces whenever they realize how something works for the first time and it kind of clicks in their brains.”
In addition to his research with Lindbergin E, Eli has completed other research projects. In 2019, after reading reports of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh, he designed a bacteria that converted arsenic into a non-toxic form by extracting the gene from a bacteria found in Australia and placing it in a more resilient strain of bacteria that could replicate faster and survive in more harsh conditions. He entered the project into the regional science fair and won. With this project, he attended the International Science Fair, and although he didn’t win, he came back with a desire to help his peers engage their intelligence in scientific curiosity. So, he started a science club at his school.
“I love teaching people,” Eli says. “I love helping them figure out what they’re passionate about because I think a lot of times, we do an injustice to our students in the school system. We’re telling them here’s how a cell works, here’s how chemistry works, but we never let them try it out for themselves. … I’ve had a lot of students who came to me and were saying, ‘I absolutely enjoy your science club, but I just don’t know what I want to do for my research project.’ And I’d just sit down, and … we would just start talking about science that we love. And by the end of that conversation, they had found their research project.”
Eli says it’s important for students to realize they don’t have to have special resources to begin pursuing their passions; the only thing he needed was a hand-me-down textbook and the will to study it. He encourages young people not to wait until college, but to start now, work hard and be patient in the gradual process of making their end goal reality.
He has great hope in the possibilities science offers in making the world a more just place, and he is excited to contribute his efforts to that.
“Science gives me an immense satisfaction because I know I’m contributing to the world in some little way. I know that once I die, this research is always going to be remembered because this is nature. It’s our understanding of nature as it is, and nature isn’t going to change anytime soon. So if I can propose this new research, I can possibly help people treat new diseases and make life a little bit better for everyone in the world,” Eli says.
“Science is incredibly important because anyone can pursue it,” he continues. “Science is something that does not discriminate. And I absolutely love seeing everyone get together in the lab and just focusing on one thing — which is science and the research — not focusing on anything else. And it’s kind of a way to get away from the world and all the stresses, all the injustices — you can just go in your lab and work on synthesizing a molecule, talk to someone about their research — and for a brief moment in time, you are just focusing on the natural world and our understanding of it.”