Chemistry professor wins Ernest Guenther Award

Freya Preimesberger

When UT chemistry professor Stephen Martin encounters chemical compounds in nature, he can envision their synthetic twins.

On April 4, Martin was awarded the Ernest Guenther Award in the Chemistry of Natural Products for his work, which shows promise for use in medicine or therapeutics. The award, presented by the American Chemical Society, includes a $6,000 grant, medallion and certificate. 

Martin, who holds the M. June and J. Virgil Waggoner Regents Chair in Chemistry, established a career synthesizing natural products, or naturally occurring chemical compounds. His work includes contributions to antibiotics, anticancer drugs and promising preclinical leads for treating several neurological disorders.

“Steve has been a pioneer in creating novel ways of synthesizing natural products,” said Dave Thirumalai, chairman of UT’s Department of Chemistry. “In the process, he has been at the forefront in syntheses of a bewildering array of natural products, many of which have promising biological activity. Through his research and leadership, Steve brings great visibility to our department and the college.”

Martin’s lab has previously worked on developing erythromycin, a commonly used antibiotic created by fermentation. Martin said synthesizing erythromycin led the lab to make analogs, which can be used in treating infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

Martin’s group has also worked to synthetically make taxol, a chemotherapy drug, and manzamine, a natural marine product. Some of his current work involves discovering novel compounds, which he refers to as natural product mimics, that may be used to treat neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injuries.

Martin’s work led to the development of a system that allows users to modify chemical structures to create new compounds. Martin said this can be used to make libraries of compounds for biological screenings. Some of these compounds were tested on various animal models and showed promise in treating neurological disorders. 

“Primarily we’re still doing some natural product synthesis but we’re turning our focus to identify compounds inspired by natural products,” Martin said. “They are neuroprotective, restore cognitive deficits from Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injuries — they’re really pretty exciting. And again, it comes out of that synthetic work.”

Martin was first nominated and then chosen by a selection committee to receive the Ernest Guenther Award. 

“It’s a tremendous honor — it’s really a tribute to the people I’ve worked with,” he said. “It’s a group honor and it’s not about me — I’m not special — I just happen to be in a unique place here at UT and had a great opportunity to work with all these fantastic people.”