Training scientists who look to nature

Michael Mullowney, Richard Van Breemen, Elizabeth Martinez;

College of Pharmacy Ph.D. students Michael Mullowney, left, and Elizabeth Martinez, with Richard van Breemen, director of the UIC/NIH Center for Botanical Dietary Supplements Research. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services (click image for larger file size)

Elizabeth Martinez hopes to discover a cure for menopausal symptoms using an herbal dietary supplement.

With the help of a new federal training grant to the College of Pharmacy, the Ph.D. student’s vision may one day become reality.

The college received a five-year, $2.1 million grant to train graduate and postdoctoral students like Martinez in natural product drugs and dietary supplements. The grant is funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, one of the National Institutes of Health.

“This grant will support the education of the next generation of scientists who will be responsible for establishing the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements and for the discovery of new therapeutic agents from natural product sources,” said Richard van Breemen, professor of medicinal chemistry and director of the UIC/NIH Center for Botanical Dietary Supplements Research.

“The majority of drugs and supplements in use today are derived from natural products,” he said.

The grant, which funds predoctoral and postdoctoral research training in biomedical and behavioral research, includes annual stipends for the young researchers and institutional allowances to defray expenses.

To be eligible for a predoctoral award, students must have a baccalaureate degree and be enrolled in a doctoral program leading to a Ph.D., a comparable research degree, or dual research/clinical doctorate like the M.D./Ph.D. Postdoctoral fellows must have a Ph.D. or M.D. or comparable doctoral degree from an accredited domestic or foreign institution.

The students are selected by faculty in the medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy department.

Martinez and Michael Mullowney, both Ph.D. students, are the first winners.

Both had other careers before they began studying medicinal chemistry.

Martinez was an industrial food scientist when she decided the work didn’t satisfy her need to “make an impact on the lives of people.”

Under van Breemen’s direction, she is studying how to prevent dangerous side effects caused by drug-herb interactions in menopausal women. She tests plant extracts used in the formulation of dietary supplements for potential connections with drugs that are metabolized in the liver by the same enzymes.

“Preventing harm and improving the quality of life for menopausal women is the driving force of our research,” Martinez said. “This grant will allow me to continue my dream of helping people.”

Mullowney discovered an interest in science while working in illustration and the music recording industry.

Pharmacognosy “lured me as a science based in nature,” he said. Its importance can be readily understood by people, “thus reinforcing the environmental value of its natural roots.”

In the laboratory of Brian Murphy, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy, Mullowney looks for leads to new antibiotics in marine and freshwater bacteria — sources “largely overlooked by traditional drug discovery programs,” he says.

He hopes to one day oversee his own university laboratory.

“I want to be part of the future of medicine that unravels the mysteries of science to more effectively treat humanity,” Mullowney said. “The intersection of biology and chemistry found in the research in UIC’s pharmacognosy department is the perfect next step in my life of creative discovery.”