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Chemistry grad student wins Vanier scholarship

UBC Chemistry graduate student Léanne Racicot has won the prestigious Vanier scholarship for her work on the total synthesis of thiopeptides, a family of antibiotics with potent activity against drug-resistant pathogens.

The World Health Organization selected the fight against antimicrobial resistance as the theme for World Health Day in 2011, this phenomenon being among the most serious threats to quality health care worldwide. Although drug resistance is a natural phenomenon, it was amplified by thirty years of antibiotics misuse and has caused many antibiotics to become ineffective. Without proper artillery to fight infections, humanity could be brought back to the pre-penicillin era, where even abdominal surgery was beyond the dreams of physicians. In order to solve this problem, governments must plan a concerted action to limit the spread of drug-resistant microorganisms. But more importantly, scientists must develop new potent antimicrobial drugs. Some specialists predict that all antibiotics currently known could lose their effectiveness within a couple of decades if the rise of drug-resistant infections around the world remains steady.

Ongoing research in our laboratory aims to establish practical avenues to thiopeptides, highly modified proteins which exhibit interesting activities against several types of drug-resistant bacteria, including the formidable methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). More precisely, the topic of the present research is the total synthesis of nosiheptide, a member of the vast family of thiopeptide antibiotics. Our laboratory has focused on the synthesis and medicinal chemistry of these compounds since a number of years and previous work has allowed the development of straightforward routes to several key fragments of these bactericides. In organic chemistry, the development of new reactions and strategies to obtain complex structures is fundamental in order to save costs and simplify the manufacture of active compounds for pharmaceutical products. The ultimate objective of this project is to enable medicinal chemistry work leading to structures which could be used against drug-resistant microbes that cause hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide, each year.

"I am very grateful for receiving a Vanier Scholarship to pursue my doctoral studies here at UBC," Leanne says. "Working for Professor Ciufolini has been something I've aspired to since meeting him in 2009 and receiving this funding will allow me to immerse myself completely in my research project."