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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU chemistry professor works to build molecules to treat cancer, neurological disorders

Effective treatments for various cancers and neurological diseases may lie in molecules being synthesized at New Mexico State University.

NMSU professor William Maio works in his chemistry lab, where molecules are synthesized to advance new therapies and treatments for both cancer and neurodegenerative disorders (Submitted photo)

In an effort to advance new therapies and treatments for both cancer and neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, New Mexico State University professor William Maio and his student research team, are making fully synthetic versions of molecules originally isolated from marine sources.

"What we do is synthetically make these large, bioactive natural products from smaller starting materials," Maio said. "Our goal is to biologically test these molecules and non-natural derivatives to uncover what components are active against illnesses so that we may fine tune these molecules for human use."

The compounds Maio is interested in have previously been isolated in naturally occurring materials like sponges and corals and demonstrated to have pleasing biological activity in initial screens. Through total synthesis, the goal is to modify these targets for human needs.

Beginning with three undergraduate students who worked in the laboratory on a daily basis, Maio's first assignment for the group was the construction of Palmyrolide A, a product isolated from cyanobacteria collected off the coast of Hawaii, which has potential to treat various neurodegenerative disorders.

Senior Ivan Tarin and junior Emily Johnson are each working to build two separate fragments, which when combined, will produce Palmyrolide A.

In nature, bioactive secondary metabolites, like those Maio is working with, are generated by animals very quickly, usually as a response to external stimuli. However, what may occur in nature in a matter of seconds, usually takes Maio's team up to months to build. By finding out what parts of the molecules are necessary and which are unnecessary, the team can eventually build compounds with only what is essential for human use.

Now with five undergraduate students and one graduate researcher, Maio and his team are working even harder to build Palmyrolide A and several related molecules. Once complete, the final compounds will be sent to a laboratory in Nebraska where they will be used for biological assays.

"Hopefully things will really pick up speed by summer when the students can devote themselves full time to the lab," Maio said. "Assembling these molecules does take time, but the work we are now doing and things we are producing are very exciting."