Highlights //

Doctoral students win international recognition (2010)

Two medicinal chemistry PhD students supervised by Maurice Wilkins Centre investigator Professor Margaret Brimble have won prestigious international postdoctoral fellowships.

Zoe And DomineaThe natural world provides many of the drugs used to treat human disease. Medicinal chemists like Professor Margaret Brimble and her team create synthetic copies of promising natural compounds, to produce sufficient quantities for research and commercialisation and so that modifications can be made to further improve their activity. 

For her PhD in Margaret’s laboratory, Dominea Rathwell (below right) synthesised gamma-rubromycin, a potent inhibitor of the enzyme telomerase, that has potential anticancer activity. 

Telomeres are the protective “caps” at the end of chromosomes that are worn down with each cell division. Telomerase counters this by extending the chromosomes to protect the genetic information within. 

Most cells die after a certain number of divisions because the telomeres become too short, but some cancer cells have increased telomerase activity that effectively makes them immortal. 

The synthesis of gamma-rubromycin opens up exciting avenues for fighting cancer and, with international colleagues, Margaret is investigating the inhibitor’s potential as a new drug. 

Dominea’s work was a cover story in the prestigious journal Angewandte Chemie and was selected as one of its top five percent of papers. She was awarded a 2010 Humbolt Research Fellowship to the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, and the 2010 Hatherton Award from the Royal Society of New Zealand for the best scientific paper by a doctoral student. 

Fellow student Zoe Wilson’s (above left) work focused on another natural product with anticancer activity, produced by a micro-organism from an extreme environment. 

The compound, berkelic acid, was isolated from a fungus growing in Berkeley Pit Lake, Montana. The lake, which formed when an abandoned copper mine filled with water, is acidic and laden with metals, and the organisms that live there produce natural products with unique structures. 

Routine screening indicated that berkelic acid may be effective against cancer, but the natural source provides only small amounts and will disappear if the lake is drained. 

Zoe successfully synthesized the core of the complex compound, allowing further analysis and modifications. 

Her work was published in Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry and she was awarded a 2010 Newton International Fellowship to the University of Cambridge. 

“It’s quite incredible for two students from the same research group to win such prestigious international fellowships,” says Margaret. 

“Since the fellowships provide ongoing support to maintain international research, the scientists and their New Zealand colleagues will continue to benefit even after they return home.” 

The Maurice Wilkins Centre supported both students by funding their PhD research expenses and project extensions.


Images: Photographs courtesy of Godfrey Boehnke. Telomere image courtesy of Dominea Rathwell.