Martin Burke, ORGANIC CHEMIST, Urbana, Illinois
"I got to college and for the first time saw what science had to offer, and this was just transformational for me."
What He's Doing
If you lose an arm or leg in an accident or other injury, you can get a new one that functions much like the real thing. Medical science has come a long way in improving these anatomical prosthetics, but it has a ways to go when it comes to restoring function to molecular parts, says Martin Burke. If scientists can find a way to fix these types of deficiencies, they may be able to treat and even cure devastating diseases.
The idea is to create new types of medicines that operate as functional surrogates for missing or defective proteins. They could go inside the cell and replace the proteins, making them work as they should. In a sense, the medicines would serve as molecular prosthetics. Burke came up with this concept when he was studying to become a doctor, and today it is the focus of his lab.
Burke, who had always been interested in science, pursued advanced degrees in medicine and chemistry. While he ultimately preferred to do research full-time, he says that the dual perspective gave him a sense of problems that, if solved, could have the biggest impact on human health. "The problem we are now working on," he adds, "came straight from the experience of running around the hospital and seeing where medicine was successful and where medicine fell short."
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Illinois
OUTSIDE THE LAB
Hobbies include running and hanging out with wife (also a chemist) and baby son
Dreamed of playing professional baseball (for the Orioles)
ADVICE HE WOULD HAVE LIKED SOONER
A Ryder truck doesn't fit through the toll booths on the New Jersey Turnpike!
The cornerstone to developing molecular prosthetics is synthesis, the process of making specific molecules. While it's relatively easy, quick and cheap to synthesize molecules like DNA or RNA, it's much harder to make small molecules that have the potential to become new medicines. Burke spends a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to make small molecule synthesis more efficient.
He primarily uses a strategy called iterative cross-coupling in which he joins simple chemical building blocks in repetitive reactions, like assembling Lego bricks. He and his team discovered a set of compounds that lets them do this in a very effective way, and they recently developed a version of the technique that gives them even more flexibility. Now the goal is to build a machine that automates the process, ultimately enabling non-chemists to make their own small molecules for their studies.
"This synthesizing strategy is something to really get excited about," says Burke. His group is using it not only to synthesize compounds but to study how they function. They're focused specifically on amphotericin B, a naturally occurring molecule used to treat fungal infections that has the remarkable capacity to form channels in cell membranes that let ions pass through. Burke thinks that a better understanding of amphotericin B could open the door to synthesizing small molecules that restore the functions of important protein-based ion channels, like the ones missing in people who have the life-threatening lung disease cystic fibrosis.
For Burke, the potential applications of his work motivate him every day. "The prospect of discovering one thing in your lab and immediately having the whole world be different," he says, "that's why science is such an incredibly exciting pursuit."