Cleaning his life's work

MU professor emeritus of chemistry returns to his former laboratory to dispose of the chemicals he studied for more than 30 years
Wednesday, November 8, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:13 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

“It’s kind of depressing to be destroying all of these compounds,” Richard Loeppky said wistfully of the one-man cleanup he had undertaken in his former laboratory in MU’s Chemistry Building. “I remember the students who worked on each one with me as I do it.”

Loeppky, a professor emeritus of chemistry, recently spent a week cleaning up the remains of a body of work that has been his primary preoccupation for 30 years. He chose to work alone because the chemicals being disposed, called nitrosamines, are highly toxic and have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals.

“I felt that this would be the most responsible way to do it,” he said.

Since 1973, Loeppky, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, has been studying how nitrosamines — which can be found in tobacco smoke — can form from ingredients in everyday products, such as cosmetics, and in many foods, such as bacon, beer and certain kinds of lunch meats. Loeppkey, who retired from the classroom in 2003, now lives in Seattle, where he is writing up past research. Publication of his findings could help other researchers, who are trying to prove whether nitrosamines pose the same threat to humans that they do to animals, he said.

“I support efforts to get people to keep it out of products, reduce human exposure,” he said. “I wrote the research up so that others can find people who have been naturally exposed.”

The next step is to examine the DNA of people who have been exposed to nitrosamines and see if it has been changed in ways that match the DNA changes found in lab animals tested, he said. Part of Loeppky’s research has been to figure out exactly how nitrosamines modify DNA, thus making it possible to spot this type of mutation in humans who have been exposed.

“Some of these compounds are found in metalworking fluids,” he said,” so some metalworkers are exposed to relatively high concentrations. Our research showed a DNA modification that you could monitor in humans.”

Loeppky began his career at MU in 1964. During his time as a researcher, Loeppky was also a full-time professor, and he said he loved interacting with students. Asked to recall his favorite part of being a professor, he reminisced about teaching organic chemistry. “It was a required course for many majors, so the largest percentage of students there were not majoring in chemistry,” he said. “I really enjoyed getting them interested in a course that they may have feared coming into. It’s fun to see people get excited, get turned on by the subject.”

Loeppky has kept in touch with many former students, having watched some of them go on to successful scientific careers or to pursue advanced degrees.

Kathryn McFarland, a former doctoral student who studied under Loeppky, is now a divisional vice president with Abbott Laboratories, one of the world’s largest producers of pharmaceutical, medical and nutritional products. McFarland said Loeppky supported her at a time — the 1970s — when women found it difficult to break into careers as scientists.

“I was the first woman in that area in nearly thirty years,” she said. “Women in science are still pioneers, and his support in that regard is one of the main things that I remember about working with him.”

Vicky Singh, a principal research scientist at Bristol-Myers Squibb, a major player in the pharmaceutical industry, studied under Loeppky as a graduate student soon after arriving in the U.S. from her native India.

“He always believed in me,” she said, “even when I didn’t believe in myself.”

Singh, who did research on nitrosamines at MU, said the research that Loeppky published about the process by which nitrosamines are formed was significant. “It is important for people to know about that,” she said.

Loeppky is still involved in research projects and maintains a laboratory at MU, although he said he will eventually have to make room there for another researcher, too. He plans to focus on completing the publication of his research in hopes that it will help future scientists advance his life’s work. He admits, however, that he wishes he had a place to go when a new and potentially groundbreaking idea pops into his head.

“I miss being able to rush over to the lab,” he said, “and do an experiment.”

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