Thomas Shell joined the Department of Chemistry at Norwich University in 2017. He earned his BS at the University of Richmond and PhD at Emory University.
Tom Shell is a chemical biologist who builds molecules crucial to research into targeted drug-delivery systems known as photo-pharmaceuticals. Working in his lab, Shell synthesizes molecules similar to vitamin B12 called alkylcobalamins that bind to nearly any cancer drug and put its cell-killing powers on hold. Before that happens, however, Shell attaches a light-sensitive trigger to the alkylcobalamin. Hit with the right wavelength of light, the molecule jettisons its cancer drug, sending it on its tumor-destroying way.
Other researchers have explored triggers sensitive to UV light, despite its major drawback—our skin is very good at absorbing it. Shell was the first to build triggers sensitive to near-infrared light, which passes deep into human tissue. The scientist says his research could one day help doctors treat patients with head and neck cancers where surgeries would be unsightly, if not difficult, while minimizing damage to healthy tissue elsewhere in the body.
Shell collaborates with Brian Pogue, a physics and surgery professor at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering and Geisel School of Medicine who co-directs the college’s Optics in Medicine Lab. “We have the light-delivery tools and the background in mouse models of cancers and human treatments, which can help. But what we lack is expertise in chemistry and synthesis and development of molecules,” Pogue says. “Tom brings the exact expertise that we need.”