On Tuesday, May 7, the Center for Biotechnology Education will hold its 14th annual research symposium. During the event at the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus, biotechnology students and some high school students will participate in a poster session devoted to their research.
Following the poster session, Barry O’Keefe, a scientist at the National Cancer Institute, will give a keynote address about natural product-based drug discovery. O’Keefe is acting chief of the Molecular Targets Program at the Center for Cancer Research and chief of the Natural Products Branch, Developmental Therapeutics Program at the Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis.
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Hopkins Happenings asked O’Keefe to discuss his upcoming speech and his role at the National Cancer Institute.
Hopkins Happenings: Tell us about your educational and career background.
O’Keefe: I received a B.S in Botany from Michigan State University and a Ph.D. in pharmacognosy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. As it is an unusual field, allow me to explain. Pharmacognosy is a highly interdisciplinary field that studies bioactive agents from natural sources. It includes aspects of plant, marine and microbial biology, organic and medicinal chemistry, biochemistry and enzymology, molecular biology and cellular biology.
Hopkins Happenings: Tell us about your work at the National Cancer Institute. What are you trying to accomplish, and why is it important?
O’Keefe: My work involves the identification and structure elucidation of active molecules from natural sources. We facilitate natural product-based drug discovery at research institutions around the world. My individual research group specializes in the isolation and physical and functional characterization of potential biotherapeutics from natural sources. Specifically, we have isolated many anti-viral proteins from marine organisms, one of which is currently in clinical trials. This work is important because approximately 30 percent of all approved drugs are based on natural product molecules. In cancer and infectious disease, greater than 50 percent of all small molecule therapeutics are based on natural products.
Hopkins Happenings: What will be the focus of your keynote address at the research symposium?
O’Keefe: My talk will discuss the importance of natural products in drug discovery in general and also describe the path from the initial discovery of a novel natural product in our laboratory to its first-in-human Phase I clinical trial last year as a female-controlled microbicide for the prevention of HIV, HSV and HPV.
Hopkins Happenings: What do you hope the audience learns from your remarks?
O’Keefe: I hope they learn the importance of natural sources for the active molecules we use as drugs, and that they come away enthusiastic about opportunities to add to our knowledge of chemical and biological diversity present in nature.
Hopkins Happenings: This year, the research symposium is highlighting its collaboration with NCI, and you were involved from the beginning. Can you tell us about that, and why the collaboration is important?
O’Keefe: My role in this program started in 2001, before the collaboration with the NCI was initiated. I was actually the individual who had the idea to begin this collaboration which, with the significant effort of others, was brought to fruition. I helped negotiate the initial agreement between JHU and the NCI, wrote the first four syllabi for the four new concentration courses in drug discovery and molecular targets and I have participated in selecting both students and NCI mentors for the program for the past 15 years. I have also mentored students from the program in our laboratory at the NCI.
This program is important because it brings together local industry, academia and government in a program to the benefit of all, especially the students who get to take full advantage of this unique program and the highly-marketable skills with which it empowers its graduates.
Hopkins Happenings: Part of the goal of the research symposium is to inspire students to continue with careers in research and biotechnology. What words of wisdom and encouragement do you have for them?
O’Keefe: I think the fact that so many students have entered this program is inspiring in itself. The students I have been fortunate enough to encounter have all gone on to either pursue further degrees or immediate employment in research. This program has a great reputation for producing outstanding, highly-trained graduates who have excelled at life. My words of encouragement would be to have faith in your abilities, persist through the inevitable setbacks in experimentation and be courageous in your goals. The more people who tell you are crazy, the closer you are to doing something worthwhile.