URI’s College of Pharmacy bolsters natural products chemistry work

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Discovering drugs from natural sources part of College’s 50-year history

KINGSTON, R.I. – February 25, 2008 – After it opened its doors in 1957, the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy quickly became known for its medicinal plant research.

Fifty years later, the College is strengthening its work in pharmacognosy, a branch of pharmacy dealing with medicinal substances from natural sources, especially plants.

To that end, it has added two new faculty members, one of whom will conduct research on higher plants, including berry fruits, and a second whose research interest is genomics, including interpretation of DNA sequences of microbes to identify or modify compounds that are useful medicinally.

“We now have a complementary, three-pronged approach to natural products research—medicinal plants, marine microbes and genetics,” said Pharmacy Professor David Rowley, whose research focuses on marine microbes.

“Our renewed focus on natural products and our leadership in that area is a return to the roots of the College,” said Ron Jordan, the interim dean of the College.

URI’s natural products research began in an era when natural healing treatments and interest in the healing power of fruits and vegetables were almost unheard of in the world of health care. It started with the arrival of Heber Youngken Jr., the College’s first dean in 1957. In 1966, he joined with John Knauss, the first dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography, to make a “drugs from the sea program” a key part of the new Sea Grant program. The pharmacy college hired Yuzuru Shimizu, one of the first professors hired under the Sea Grant program. By the time of his retirement this year, Shimizu had established himself and the University as international leaders in marine natural products research.

“More than half of our drugs come from natural sources or are derivatives of natural products, so natural products chemistry is an essential component of drug discovery,” Rowley said. “But we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to looking at global biodiversity. We need new medicines for bacterial diseases, cancer, inflammatory illnesses, and there are answers to our medical needs in the natural environment.

“Most of our current antibiotic drugs derive from natural products produced by terrestrial microorganisms, so as we try to stay one step ahead of the pathogens, the most logical next place to look is at marine microbes,” Rowley said.

“We wanted to expand our scope of research,” Rowley said. “We wanted someone who studies the higher plants.”

So the College hired Navindra P. Seeram, who obtained his doctorate in natural products chemistry from the University of West Indies, Jamaica. There, he researched plant compounds from native Carribbean plants. He continued his research into what he calls “Nature’s Pharmacy.”

He has co-authored more than 60 peer-reviewed papers, 10 book chapters, co-edited one book and holds several patents. He has gained international recognition in the field of bioactive botanical research.

“Dr. Seeram excited us because he is investigating several foods that might be useful in chemotherapy,” Rowley said.

Among the fruits that Seeram is investigating are pomegranates, strawberries and cranberries.

The College also hired Daniel W. Udwary, who earned his doctorate in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University. He completed postdoctoral work at the University of Arizona and at Scripps Institution of Oceanography where he worked on biosynthetic pathways in numerous bacterial species. Udwary has a keen interest in “genome mining”—using simple computational approaches to interpret the DNA sequences of microbes to aid in the identification and/or modification of medicinally useful compounds.

“With our expansion, we now have a program that will be attractive to a wide variety of students,” Rowley said. “They will be able to investigate important new areas related to therapeutic treatments from higher plants, including foods that have medicinal value,” Rowley said.

He said Udwary’s work will focus on how natural products are made through gene-based research. “Using decoded genomes, Dan and his students will be able to discover new biological products with potential for drug development.

“What we now have are complementary areas of expertise, better training for graduates and undergraduates and outstanding collaborative opportunities within the URI faculty and beyond,” Rowley said.

He said such an approach would help the College capitalize on unique research funding opportunities through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

While Rowley, Seeram and Udwary work in key natural products areas, they aren’t the only ones in the College on the case. The following faculty members are also getting attention in their specialties: Fatemeh Akhlaghi, anti-rejection drugs, such as cyclosporin, for patients with organ transplants; Bingfang Yan, research on how drugs, herbs, and hormones interact; Ann Hume, complementary medicines, herbs and other natural products; Joan Lausier, associate dean, natural products formulation; and Kerry LaPlante, antibiotics research.

This academic year, URI’s College of Pharmacy is celebrating its 50th anniversary. With 3,600 alumni working in pharmaceutical research, community pharmacies and pharmaceutical business development, the College has a worldwide reputation for excellence. The College’s faculty members are leaders in natural products chemistry, toxicology, and cancer and AIDS research. Its faculty and staff also developed a model for outreach to senior citizens that has been copied around the world.

Pictured above

HEALING GARDEN: Navindra P. Seeram, newly hired assistant professor of pharmacognosy in the College of Pharmacy, stands next to a Saw Palmetto plant, which is used to treat enlarged prostate or benign prostatic hyperplasia. URI Department of Communications and Marketing Photo by Michael Salerno. He is a Charlestown resident.

A BEAUTIFUL SOURCE FOR ANTI-CANCER AGENTS: This photo shows the flowering Madagascar Periwinkle plant at the URI College of Pharmacy’s Medicinal Plant Garden. The plant produces two substances that have been identified as active anti-cancer agents.

URI Department of Communications and Marketing Photos by Michael Salerno.