Celebrating John Essigmann, Winner of the 2021 ACS Founder’s Award in Chemical Toxicology

By Lee Pribyl
Research Translation Core Leader and Project 4 Postdoc

It was recently announced that Professor John Essigmann is this year’s winner of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Division of Chemical Toxicology (TOXI) Founder’s Award. Prof. Essigmann is the William R. (1956) and Betsy P. Leitch Professor in Residence of Chemistry in the MIT Department of Chemistry and Professor of Toxicology and Biological Engineering in the MIT Department of Biological Engineering.  He is also the Deputy Director of the MIT Center for Environmental Health Sciences and a project and core leader for the MIT Superfund Research Program. Previous winners of this award at MIT include our colleague, Dr. Peter Dedon. The award was established in honor of the founders of the ACS Division of Chemical Toxicology and recognizes scientists whose work exemplifies the founders’ vision for excellence in the field of chemical toxicology.

Professor Essigmann’s research group has specialized in utilizing their ability to chemically synthesize oligonucleotides containing DNA lesions formed by environmental toxins and chemotherapeutic drugs and to introduce these oligos into genomes of viruses and plasmids.   Those engineered vectors can then be replicated inside of cells and the progeny can be analyzed for the type, amount and genetic requirements for mutagenesis and toxicity by the specific lesions under investigation.  Over 100 DNA lesions of environmental carcinogens and drugs have been characterized over the years. Prof. Essigmann and his laboratory have additionally made significant advancements in applying similar techniques to help our understanding of the mechanisms by which DNA damage caused by anticancer drugs induces cell death. More recently, Prof. Essigmann’s work has been focused on mutation spectra and in particular the types of mutations induced by mycotoxins such as aflatoxin B1 and DNA alkylating agents such as N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA). These studies pave the way for future testing of tissues or white blood cells from people in order to discern possible prior exposure to NDMA. Such studies could be particularly relevant if analysis of normal tissue adjacent to a tumor shows evidence of prior aflatoxin or NDMA exposure, thus contributing to our ability to deduce the underlying cause of someone’s cancer. One striking early observation has been that mutational patterns arise early after exposure to the chemical agent, making early cancer detection a formal possibility.  As such, Prof. Essigmann’s work on mutation spectra has important implications to public health.

As a pioneer in the field of site-specific mutagenesis and a leader in analysis of mutational fingerprints caused by environmental exposures, Prof. Essigmann is highly deserving of recognition by the ACS. The MIT SRP congratulates Prof. Essigmann on his award.