NIH funds drug-herb interaction research at University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy

CHICAGO — The University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy on Wednesday announced that it is the recipient of a five-year, $2.1 million grant to train graduate and postdoctoral students 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,” stated Richard van Breemen, professor of medicinal chemistry and director of the UIC/NIH Center for Botanical Dietary Supplements Research.

Two PhD students — Elizabeth Martinez and Michael Mullowney — were selected as the first recipients of the grant. Both were engaged in other careers before they began studying medicinal chemistry. Martinez was working as an industrial food scientist when she decided it was not satisfying her need to “make an impact on the lives of people.” Mullowney entered the pharmacognosy program after discovering an interest in science while working in illustration and the music recording industry.

Under the direction of van Breemen, Martinez is now 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.

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

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