Chemistry at the Forefront of Interdisciplinary Research

Wide knowledge of chemistry finds applications in biomedical sciences

Chemistry is the science of molecules, and it is often the basis of biological sciences that can have a profound impact on biomedical research. By understanding the basic components that constitute biology, chemists are able to help other scientists understand their work and provide the missing piece to advance technology and accelerate breakthroughs. Dr. Debbie Crans, Professor of Chemistry at the Colorado State University, is a biological chemist who assists life scientists in doing what they cannot. With a specialty in the area of metals in medicine and health, in both chemical studies as well as human studies, she aims to understand how drugs, vitamins, and metabolites work in our body and what can be done to make our systems work better.

Truly interdisciplinary and integral in the discovery process, Dr. Crans and her group focus on the fundamental chemistry and biochemistry of vanadium and other transition metal ions, fueled by the metals’ applications in medicine and their mechanisms of toxicity. Using highly advanced spectroscopy, Dr. Crans and her team have synthesized new compounds, characterized them, and tested their biological properties to aid the biomedical sciences. Dr. Crans’ group consists of nine graduate students and a Fulbright Scholar, who are poised to offer fresh new perspectives. Dr. Crans’ insight and expertise in the molecular perspective can help develop new drugs against diabetes, tuberculosis, malaria, understand the onset of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, and in the process expand the general field of chemistry!

Current areas of interest include:

  • Protein Folding and Misfolding: Dr. Crans is interested in understanding how metal ions impact protein folding and misfolding and facilitate the onset of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. These studies are ultimately targeting development of drugs for treatment of Alzheimer’s.
  • Tuberculosis: Dr. Crans has recently started a collaboration with a very well known microbiologist, Dr. Dean Crick, in the area of Tuberculosis to provide guidance on drug development. Drs. Crans and Crick are exploring old and new classes of drugs. Currently, they are investigating existing drugs such as pyrazinamide finding that it acts by a new mechanism, as well as studying the enzymes involved in electron transport in tuberculosis bacteria.
  • Antidiabetic Compounds: Dr. Crans and her team are developing new antidiabetic compounds and working on existing ones to understand how they work, and what can be done with drug formulation to improve them. Their work with metformin is providing insights into the mode of action of this important drug.
  • Chemistry in Confined Spaces: Dr. Crans engages chemistry on the nanoscale and studies how molecules change properties by using high technology spectroscopic methods. Her biochemical studies with vanadium can be characterized as studies of trace metal metabolism in biological systems ranging from isolated proteins to cell culture to plants to animals and humans. Enzyme classes of particular interests include phosphatases, kinases and beta-polymerase, and Dr. Crans’ team focuses on the interactions of lipids with metal ions in confined spaces.
  • Membrane Transporters as New Drug Targets: In a new project in collaboration with Dr. Angela Casini, Dr. Crans is exploring new classes of metal-based drugs with aquaporins. This work will provide inhibitors allowing studies understanding these membrane proteins better.


Dr. Debbie Crans has received her Ph.D. in Chemistry from Harvard University after receiving her undergraduate degrees in Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She continued her postdoctoral education in Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the recipient of the Cope Scholar Award in 2015, for excellence in organic chemistry, and the 2012 Lectureship Award by the Japanese Coordination Chemistry Society. She is a strong advocate of undergraduate education, whose vision is to produce and encourage the next generation scientists. In fact, a third of her papers have undergraduate co-authors, whom she continues to mentor and teach.

Dr. Crans loves to explore new phenomena and discover new things. She hopes her work to be founded in important timely problems, to address some of the key points of our time. She therefore likes to work on the chemistry of diseases, to help life scientists understand and acquire important observations that they might otherwise not have access to.

Outside of her research, she is a mother of three children, one of who is involved in the sciences.

For more information, visit


AAAS fellow, 2014

Lectureship Award, Japanese Coordination Chemistry Society, 2012

Best Teacher Award, CSU, 2011

Colorado Section American Chemical Society Research Award, 2010

ACS Fellow (Inaugural), 2009

Vanadis Award (Inaugural), 2004

Senior Humboldt Research Award, 2000


U.S. Patent No. 4,701,285: "Acyl Phosphate Salts and Their Use."

Date of Patent: Oct. 20, 1987. George M. Whitesides, Debbie C. Crans, and Romas J. Kazlaukas.