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Professor Veronique Gouverneur

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When Veronique Gouverneur arrived at the University of Oxford, flourochemistry was not high on the agenda at the Department of Chemistry. But over the last decade, she has built up an inspiring research programme which uses fluorinated molecules to synthesise analogues of natural products, produce pharmaceutical drugs and create molecular probes for PET imaging - putting her research group at the very forefront of international fluorine chemistry.

Take, for instance, her contributions to medical tracers. Veronique’s team develop new methods to create tracers for use in positron emission tomography (PET) scans - medical imaging that relies on radioactive isotopes to produce 3D images of the body’s functions. When patients are injected with sugar molecules tagged with radioactive fluorine, a PET scan will show which parts of the body are consuming sugar.

These radioisotopes can be incorporated into any compound used by the body, or into molecules that bind to receptors. The challenge, however, lies in making stable molecules that are metabolised in the right way. If the fluorine isotope lies in the wrong place, it might be broken down before it is able to reach its intended target, making the whole process pointless. So Veronique’s group have been developing new ways of attaching fluorine radioisotopes to organic molecules, to ensure they’re always in the right place.

In 2007, her team joined forces with medical imaging experts from the Department of Engineering Science to open the Siemens Oxford Molecular Imaging Laboratory. Using new flourochemistry techniques, they have been able to tag L-DOPA - a compound taken up by parts of the brain in sufferers of Parkinson’s disease - with radioactive fluorine. The technology is in its infancy, but if successful it could revolutionize the face of Parkinson’s diagnosis and treatment by allowing radiologists to spot the disease far sooner.

Veronique’s more recent interactions in the Oxford Cancer Imaging Centre are spurring her current work: investigating new ways of directly replacing hydrogen atoms with fluorine isotopes in organic compounds. Current methods use elaborate systems of reactions, and Veronique believes her group can improve medical practice by simplifying the process.

Similar success stories abound across the rest of her research, particularly in synthesising new fluorinated molecules. And if proof were needed of her successes, Veronique's research was recognised by the AstraZeneca award for organic chemistry 2005 and by the RSC Bader Award in 2008.