Originally published in the Imperial Magazine in June 2017, Professor Naomi Chayen explains why, when it comes to medicine, crystals may indeed have magical properties.
To grow a crystal used to be considered a kind of magic. Perhaps that’s because crystals are so beautiful: it is easy to understand why so many people are fascinated by them and believe that they bring good fortune, or have healing powers. And yes, they do have powers. Crystallise a substance – a protein, for example – and you can understand its structure. We prize diamonds for their beauty: I prize protein crystals for their potential power to unlock new treatments, in everything from cancer to diabetes. They are my diamonds.
My own involvement with crystallography was a happy accident. I was encouraged into the field by one of its great pioneers, Professor David Blow. At that time, growing a crystal was regarded as more of an art than a science. There was a sense that one had to have ‘green fingers’, like a gardener: knowing the basic components of success but also using some kind of indefinable sixth sense.
I became fascinated with them. I wanted to bring scientific fundamentals to the process and create crystallisation methods that would work all over the world, from Kathmandu to Tokyo. Of course, crystallisation is not new. In 1914, Max von Laue won a Nobel Prize for his discovery that X-rays could be diffracted by crystals, making it possible to work out their structure. In those early days, there was a great rush to crystallise as many things as possible. Any substances that were simple to crystallise, were crystallised. (more…)