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NMSU research chemist profiles food compounds for Food and Drug Administration

LAS CRUCES - Each day as Omar Holguin reports to work at the Counter Terrorist Chemical Technology Laboratory at New Mexico State University, he is aware that he is helping to build a shield against bioterrorism.

Research chemist Omar Holguin profiles chemical compounds for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at New Mexico State University's Counter Terrorist Chemical Technology Laboratory. (Photo by Jane Moorman, NMSU photo)

As a research chemist, the Los Lunas High School graduate is involved in verifying toxic screening methods established by the United States Food and Drug Administration.

"The FDA knows their methods work, they just want to know how well it works in different food scenarios," Holguin said. "There are many things that could compromise the food. These methods determine if the food has been contaminated with toxins."

As the first lab in a chain of seven sites doing the testing, NMSU's chemists perform chromatography on food that they have spiked with toxins.

Chromatography is a technique used to separate the components of a chemical mixture by moving the mixture along a stationary material, such as gelatin. Different components of the mixture are caught by the material at different rates and form isolated bands that can then be analyzed.

"FDA has a list of toxins that they want to screen for," Holguin said. "We basically spike the food item, extract a sample, analyze it and report back to FDA if yes you can see them all, or no, you can't, there's a problem."

Holguin says through this process he is creating a library of profiles of the components in the food. From the work Holguin is doing, FDA will have a database to compare unknown food compounds against.

"Food gives off a signature. As an example, we create profiles of different green chile from several regions or from different manufacturers to see if they always give off a certain signature," Holguin said. "Now when FDA encounters a food's component that might be an unknown, or they think might have chile in it, they can go to the profile and determine that it is or isn't chile." Holguin is the of retired Valencia County Extension agent Frank and Rosa Holguin.

When Holguin graduated from Los Lunas High School in 1997 he did not expect to become a research chemist. He planned to go to NMSU and earn a degree in engineering. But those plans changed when he received a scholarship from NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics and decided to pursue a degree in an agricultural field.

"I chose a degree that had the most overlap with engineering - environmental science. At the bachelor's degree level of that major you learn a little bit of everything - chemistry, biology and a little civil engineering," he said. "I chose to have my emphasis in environmental chemistry and my minor in chemistry."

As Holguin approached the next stage of his education - graduate school - he didn't know he was on the verge of a major impact on his life and career.

In 2002, while trying to decide whether to do graduate work in engineering or environmental engineering, Holguin was approached by classmates about Professor Mary O'Connell's research group, which is working in plant chemistry and medicinal uses of plants.

"I thought the work they were doing was interesting, so I joined up with that group," he said. "It was a phenomenal experience."

While looking for anti-cancer properties of plants found in the Southwest, Holguin's research focused on datura, commonly called jimsonweed.

"We were working with a specific group of chemical class called saponins. They are the ones responsible for foam in root beer or when you wash your hair with yucca root," he said. "We were interested in that group because literature says there might be anti-cancer qualities or have shown they have anti-cancer qualities. We knew they were a good medicinal plant because they have anti-fungal qualities."

Holguin's work was to isolate and extract saponins from the plants.

"We developed from literature a specific way to isolate saponin. With further work, we discovered the chemical compound inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells in a petri dish," he said. The work was done with scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash.

"Fred Hutchinson Center is where all of the anti-cancer studies are done for our group. All of the cell tissue work is done there because we don't have the facilities here. We ship samples up there and they test them. When we found out one sample had a lot of activity in it, our relationship became very close with one of their scientists," he said.

The scientists have decided that the anti-cancer compound isn't a sapinon, and are still working to determine the exact chemical structure.

"We will eventually crack it, but it's taken quite a bit of effort. But the outcome will be very promising," he said of the work he has continued while working at the Counter Terrorist Chemical Technology Lab.

Holguin made another discovery at O'Connell's molecular biology lab - the woman who would become his wife, Andrea Medina from Las Cruces.

"Andrea was working with medicinal plants of the Southwest," he said. "Her project was yerba mansa and its essential oils. Her research involved creating profiles of the oils to determine if it was always going to look the same or different depending on where it is found in the state."

One thing the yerba mansa research has verified, said Holguin, is that essential oils have a positive effect on cancer in female reproductive organs such as cervical and ovarian cancers.

The couple married on May 21, 2005, and they are now the proud parents of a daughter, Grace Elizabeth, who was born on Jan. 18 of this year.

Holguin has decided to continue his graduate work and plans to pursue his doctorate. He will begin working with Professor Champa Sengupta-Gopalan's group in May. Her program is working to improve the nutritional value of alfalfa.

"Because of the work and knowledge I gained with Dr. O'Connell's group it allowed me to land this job after my master's," he said of the FDA contract. "And while here, I've developed the knowledge and skills to work with this type of instrument, which takes a while to learn how to operate properly. Now I feel I can be an asset to Dr. Gopalan during the research with alfalfa."

What does the future hold for Holguin? He says he'd like to work in academia and teach while continuing to be a research chemist.

"I've worked with Dr. O'Connell's summer medicinal plant program and really enjoyed teaching," he said. "But I am really not sure what's in the future. Just as long as I keep learning, I'll be happy."