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Award helps in the search for the next medical breakthrough and the next great scientist

Undergraduate research plays a key role in developing quality scientists
Undergraduate research plays a key role in developing quality scientists

Do an Internet search for high dose drugs and the headlines that come to the top are ominous: “FDA Should Ban High Doses of Alzheimer's Drug Aricept, Public Citizen Says,” “High-Dose Statins May Increase Diabetes Risk,” “FDA Warns Against High Doses Of Cholesterol Drug.”

Fort Lewis College Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Kenny Miller is working on ways to keep, and perhaps even increase, a drug’s medicinal effects while decreasing the need for a high dosage that can lead to harmful side effects. His research was recently helped financially by a $35,000 Cottrell College Science Award given by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

“Most medicines are derived from natural sources or are chemically-modified versions of naturally occurring compounds, called natural products,” Dr. Miller explains.

These natural compounds have antiviral capabilities, and those capabilities could be increased by making changes to a compound’s structure. The problem is that often the natural compounds are found in very small amounts, too small to be very useful in researching them.

“What we’re doing in the lab is trying to find ways to make those particular compounds which are found in nature, but found in very small quantities. So if you can find a way in a lab to make those on a larger scale then it might allow their properties to be studied,” says Dr. Miller. “Nobody really knows what their mechanism of action is, nobody knows how they inhibit viral growth, so that would be one thing that would be interesting to study if you had a significant quantity of these compounds and the other thing that we’re looking at is modifying their structure in a systematic way and seeing how that changes their antiviral properties.”

Creating more effective medicines by modifying the structure of the compounds that make up the medicine would mean that drugs could be administered at lower doses, thus cutting down on a drug’s harmful side effects. It also might help scientists keep up with ever changing diseases that are becoming resistant to the drugs and doses currently used.

“One problem is that these viruses can quickly adapt resistance to drugs that are in use today,” he explains. “So what you want to do is look for new drugs that operate in a different way, that inhibit viral growth in a different way, so that you can have new tools in your toolbox to fight these viruses that they’re not already resistant to.”

“I think that the most valuable contribution that you can make as far as training future scientists is to get them when they’re undergraduate students. [Those are] your formative years as far as being a scientist is concerned,” Dr. Miller explains.

In the summer of 2010, three Fort Lewis College students assisted Dr. Miller in his work to create and analyze antiviral compounds. That research led to a published paper and one of the students, Spencer Hines, won a Research Experience for Undergraduates award that allowed him to study the medicinal value of tropical plants in Thailand. Three more FLC students will be working with Dr. Miller this year.

“I think that the most valuable contribution that you can make as far as training future scientists is to get them when they’re undergraduate students. [Those are] your formative years as far as being a scientist is concerned.” Dr. Miller explains. “You’re not going to be successful in graduate school if you don’t have a solid foundation as an undergraduate, and you’re not going to be successful as a scientist in the workforce if you don’t have that solid foundation.”

Fort Lewis College’s Chemistry Department is known for giving its students the tools to succeed. From 2005-09 (the latest data available from the National Science Foundation), FLC ranks third in Colorado, behind only Colorado State University and the University of Colorado-Boulder, in the number of students who go on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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