Rebecca Abergel in interior setting
Photo: Elena Zhukova

Research Expertise and Interest

Heavy element coordination and biological chemistry for new decontamination, separation, and radiotherapeutic strategies

Research Description

Rebecca Abergel is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Nuclear Engineering and Chemistry at UC Berkeley and the Heavy Element Chemistry Group Leader within the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Chemical Sciences Division.

The multidisciplinary research undergone in Abergel's group is at the interface of coordination chemistry, nuclear chemistry, radiochemistry, photophysics, chemical biology, health physics, pharmacology, and molecular and cellular biology. The group studies the effects of heavy element and inorganic isotope exposure and contamination on different biological systems in addition to the coordination chemistry and metabolic properties of lanthanide and actinide complexes formed with synthetic and biological ligands. Goals are to gain a better understanding of the biological coordination chemistry and toxicity mechanisms of the f-elements and to develop specific strategies for decontamination, waste management, remediation, separation, and radiopharmaceutical development.

Abergel also leads a large collaborative effort on the development of new drug products for the treatment of populations contaminated with heavy metals and radionuclides. One of these products was granted an Investigational New Drug status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2014 and is now entering a Phase I clinical trial.

In the News

Removing a Potential MRI Risk - Literally

More than 40 million MRI scans are carried out every year in the U.S.  In about one out of three, patients get an infusion containing the metal gadolinium as a contrast agent to improve imaging. Because contrast MRIs sometimes lead to potentially life-threatening complications, the FDA issued a warning against contrast MRIs for patients with kidney disease. Rebecca Abergel studies the chemical biology of metals, with a research focuses on organic molecules that can sequester and eliminate metals in the body, a chemical process known as chelation. She is using her Bakar Fellow support to evaluate the effectiveness of a chelating drug she has developed.

Are heavy metals toxic? Scientists find surprising clues in yeast

Lanthanides are rare-earth heavy metals with useful magnetic properties and a knack for emitting light. Researchers had long assumed that lanthanides’ toxicity risk was low and therefore safe to implement in a number of high-tech breakthroughs we now take for granted: from OLEDs (organic light-emitting displays) to medical MRIs and even hybrid vehicles. In recent years, however, some scientists have questioned lanthanides’ safety. Now, a team of researchers led by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and UC Berkeley has compiled the most complete library yet of lanthanides and their potential toxicity – by exposing baker’s yeast, aka Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to lanthanide metals. Their findings were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Five Berkeley faculty members elected fellows of the AAAS

Five Berkeley faculty members have been named fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an honor bestowed upon the society’s members by their peers. The five are among 443 members awarded the honor because of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. Founded in 1848, the AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of Science and five other journals.

A Single Dose for Good Measure: How an Anti-Nuclear-Contamination Pill Could Also Help MRI Patients

When chemist Rebecca Abergel and her team at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) successfully developed an anti-radiation-poisoning pill in 2014, they hoped it would never have to be used. Designed to remove radioactive contaminants from the body in the event of something horrible, like a nuclear reactor meltdown or, even worse, a nuclear attack, the pill may also double as an anti-gadolinium-toxicity pill for MRI patients injected with commonly used contrast dye.

Featured in the Media

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of UC Berkeley.
February 8, 2021
Kenneth Chang
Einsteinium is an element with a famous name that almost no one has heard of. Highly radioactive and not found in nature, it can be produced in a few specialized nuclear reactors, but only in minute amounts. UC Berkeley assistant professor of nuclear engineering Rebecca Abergel and her team have now worked out some basic chemical properties of einsteinium, not without considerable difficulty.
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February 3, 2021
Brooks Hays
Scientists have, for the first time, measured the bond distance of einsteinium, one of the most radioactive and difficult to make elements on the periodic table. Researchers detailed rare experiments on the element, which carries the atomic number 99, in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature. "[The finding] is significant because the more we understand about its chemical behavior, the more we can apply this understanding for the development of new materials or new technologies," said UC Berkeley assistant professor of nuclear engineering and study author Rebecca Abergel.
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