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Transcript of Dr. Martin Burke on Being a Chemist Podcast

October 27, 2011

Meet Martin Burke, M.D., Ph.D.

When I was in high school-so I grew up in a really small town—we had one traffic light, and when I left for college, we got a second one. It was a very exciting advance. It's interesting; sometimes when you grow up in a rural town, you don't necessarily get exposed to all of the things that are out there in the world. If you were really ambitious and you really wanted to try to do something, you're either going to be a doctor or baseball player. I really wanted to be a doctor, and so, you know, I went to college with that goal in mind because that was kind of, in my head, the one thing you would go after if you were inclined towards science and you really wanted to do something important. So I got to college and for the first time kind of saw what science had to offer, and this was just transformational for me.

So I went to medical school as an MDPHD student, which means you get both a medical degree and also a Ph.D. in science, and throughout the course of that process, it was just transformational for me to see how powerful it can be to bring the two together.

For my group, we are intensely interested in the question: Might it be possible to develop medicines that act as like prostheses on the molecular scale? So if you, for example, think about, at present, if you lose a hand in an injury or in an accident, for example, due to a tremendous amount of developments now, you can get a replacement hand that has a remarkably powerful ability to kind of help restore the function of the one that you lost. And so, on the macroscopic scale, we perform prostheses very effectively. However, on the molecular scale, if you are missing a protein, for example, there's really not a lot that modern medicine can do to help you at present. It turns out to be a very difficult problem. So there are a lot of diseases that are caused by this type of deficiency of protein function where you're missing one of these functional molecules, and most of those diseases remain incurable despite all the advances we've seen in modern medicine.

The ultimate aim would be to understand enough basic science to make those new types of medicines possible. For me, the problem that we're now working on in my lab were absolutely came straight from the experience of running around the hospitals and seeing where medicine was successful and then also seeing where medicine fell short. And so, thinking about the power of chemistry and capacity to make molecules and trying to bridge that to this area of unmet need in terms of deficiency in protein function causing a disease—that's how it all came together for me, and so, I see the two experiences as being incredibly synergistic and it's exciting to try to think about giving yourself as much perspective as possible. Picking a problem—the highest impact problem you can possibly wrap your head around—and then going for it. So that's what we're trying to do.

As things exist today, the slow step in discovering new medicines is synthesis. What we mean by that is if you want to discover new medicines you first need to be able to make new molecules that have the possibility of being great new medicines. And so, in my lab, we spend a tremendous amount of our time, effort and energy trying to develop new ways to make small molecules very efficiently. The advance that we've been fortunate enough to be able to put out has been the discovery of a process in which you take little building blocks that have two sites of attachment and you simply clip them together over and over again using only one reaction iteratively. This has now been dubbed Iterative Cross Coupling. We discovered a set of reagents that allow you to do this in a very efficient and very flexible fashion. Now our goal is to build a machine that can do this in a fully automated fashion, such that ultimately we could change the slow step from synthesis to now function, i.e., allow ourselves to spend our time worrying about how these molecules work instead of spending almost all of our time trying to figure out how to make them.

This podcast was produced by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health.

This page last reviewed on November 28, 2011