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Douglas Thomas and Richard van Breemen Receive Research Awards.

Thomas and van Breemen: Award Winning Pharmacy Researchers On Different Paths

Douglas Thomas (left) and Richard van Breemen (right)

Douglas Thomas (left) and Richard van Breemen (right)

Van Breemen, Distinguished Researcher, Natural Products Research

When browsing the aisles at a health food store, Richard van Breemen doesn’t see many botanical dietary supplements that he doesn’t know about.

He doesn’t sell the products, but he studies them.

A natural products specialist, van Breemen is director of the UIC/NIH Center for Botanical Dietary Supplements Research, one of only three botanical centers supported by the National Institutes of Health. In 2015, the center received a new five-year $9 million grant to continue its research of botanical dietary supplements for women’s health. UIC’s center has had continuous NIH support since 1999.

The botanical center investigates natural cancer chemoprevention agents and the safety and efficacy of botanical dietary supplements, especially those used by women as alternatives to hormone therapy and menopause. Van Breemen uses advanced mass spectrometry to trace the active ingredients in dietary supplements from the health food store to the bloodstream. Among the plants that have been or are currently being studied are black cohosh, red clover, chasteberry, valerian, hops, licorice and dong quai.

“The majority of drugs and supplements in use today are derived from natural products,” said van Breemen, who is also professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy. “This should come as no surprise, as nature has already preselected these substances for bioactivity.

“Now that most major pharmaceutical companies have abandoned their natural products drug discovery programs, our search for new natural pharmaceutical agents has become even more imperative.”

In the United States, 20 percent of adults report using botanical dietary supplements, while in developing countries, supplements and traditional medicines are often the primary sources of health care for disease prevention and treatment.

A pioneer in the field of liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, van Breemen had little experience working with natural products until he was approached in the late 1980s by researchers asking for his assistance in identifying and measuring carotenoids, chlorophylls and phospholipids in plants and plant cells. Little did he know at the time that his career would take a different path.

“I hope that my research in natural products will benefit public health,” he said.

Through his individual and collaborative efforts, van Breemen has authored or co-authored more than 300 peer-reviewed publications and books, and has secured three patents for his work. He has also mentored 53 graduate students and 21 postdoctoral research associates.

Douglas Thomas, Rising Star, Cancer Biologist

As a drama major in his first year of college, Douglas Thomas had no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. A biology course changed that.

The son of a renowned cancer epidemiologist, Thomas believed he was destined to perform on the stage. The biology course was so interesting, he left the acting program so he could devote his career to science.

“I’ve always been inquisitive in nature, and I love research,” Thomas said. “I feel I’m making a small contribution to human health.”

Thomas, a cancer biologist, and his colleagues have discovered a new role for nitric oxide, a gaseous signaling molecule crucial for intercellular communications and health. They found that nitric oxide plays an important role in epigenetics — external factors that turn genes “on” and “off.” Epigenetic changes do not directly modify gene sequences, but instead they affect how cells “read” the DNA.

Thomas, associate professor of medicinal chemistry, is the first to establish that nitric oxide determines the fate of tumor cells by controlling specific epigenetic pathways rather than through classical signaling mechanisms. While nitric oxide has been recognized as a significant contributor to cancer pathophysiology for many years, specific details to explain these associations have remained obscure. Thomas’ studies offer a unifying explanation that helps determine why nitric oxide exerts such a broad spectrum of effects on cancer etiology, both positively and negatively.

“Our next step is to learn how we can exploit these pathways in a tumor. And can we apply this information to develop novel therapeutic strategies to inhibit cancer progression?” Thomas said.

The research, Thomas said, has much broader implications than breast cancer treatment. Many other diseases that have a critical nitric oxide component may now be targeted for therapeutic gain.

Thomas is considered a pioneer in the field of nitric oxide and epigenetics. He has published numerous papers on the subject and over the past 24 months he has presented his work at meetings in England, Japan and China, as well as throughout the United States.

Since arriving at UIC eight years ago, he has been continuously funded through federal and association grants.

“I am really lucky to be in the company of so many talented and world-class researchers here at UIC,” he said.

He is also considered an outstanding mentor of numerous graduate students and postdoctoral research associates, preparing the next generation of cancer biologists.

While he did not become a scientist to receive accolades, Thomas said he is “humbly grateful to be the recipient of the Rising Star Award.

“I am really lucky to be in the company of so many talented and world-class researchers here at UIC. It’s really a great feeling to be recognized by your peers for your scientific contributions.”