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Professor Margaret Brimble: turning toxins into treatments

At the end of February, five top ranking women scientists from around the world received the prestigious L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science. The 2007 laureate for the Asia-Pacific region was Professor Margaret Brimble, Chair of Organic and Medicinal Chemistry at the Un...

At the end of February, five top ranking women scientists from around the world received the prestigious L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science. The 2007 laureate for the Asia-Pacific region was Professor Margaret Brimble, Chair of Organic and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, 'for her contribution to the synthesis of complex natural products, especially shellfish toxins'. On a trip to Brussels to find out more about the opportunities for New Zealand's health researchers in the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), she talked to CORDIS News about her award, the beauty of complex molecules and her research ambitions. Professor Brimble has won a lot of awards for her work over the years, but this one was particularly special for her. 'I think this one was the best,' she told CORDIS News. 'It was pretty awesome to be coming from a small country like New Zealand and get an award like that.' One of the highlights of the week spent in Paris for the award ceremony was the chance to meet her fellow laureates from the other regions of the world, as well as the winners of UNESCO-L'Oréal Fellowships, which are awarded to young women researchers to help them pursue research projects, usually outside their home country. 'It was a real networking opportunity where we could interact with the younger scientists coming through,' said Professor Brimble. 'These awards have been running for nine years and they are building in their stature and creating a network of women scientists around the world.' She hopes the award will inspire women scientists in New Zealand and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, by showing them that 'if you are committed to a scientific career, you can make it'. But, she adds, 'I'm the first to say that you have to be quite determined.' Asked what advice she would give to aspiring young female scientists, Professor Brimble is clear: 'If they're really committed and really want to do it they've got to be confident in themselves that they can achieve anything,' she replied. 'But you have to make your science your hobby and your profession.' Born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1961, during her school years Professor Brimble focused her efforts on languages, studying Latin, French and German. However, the 'right or wrong' nature of mathematics attracted her. 'I didn't like subjects that were a bit descriptive and had opinions, and I didn't really understand why there was always one right answer and how it was right,' she said. 'Whereas in maths and science it was right and there was no argument what was right.' She went on to study organic chemistry at the University of Auckland, where she loved inventing and making compounds in the lab. Her interest in medicinal chemistry was triggered by an experiment where she made aspirin. 'I remember thinking, well this is actually really quite neat, that all the pharmaceuticals that we take as drugs are just organic chemicals that medicinal chemists make,' she commented. After completing her PhD at the University of Southampton in the UK, Professor Brimble moved back to her native country and started steadily working her way up the career ladder. Apart from brief stints in the US and Australia, she has spent most of her career at the University of Auckland, and was named Professor and Chair of Organic and Medicinal Chemistry there in 1999. Her current work focuses on trying to recreate in the lab some of the 'really very beautiful' complex molecules found in nature. The waters around New Zealand are often affected by so called red tides or algal blooms. These algae produce highly complex toxins, and when the algae are eaten by shellfish, the toxins get into the food chain. Anyone unlucky enough to eat an affected shellfish could end up suffering from diarrhoea, amnesia or even paralysis, depending on the nature of the toxin. Synthesising these molecules in the lab is a slow process, which Professor Brimble describes as a game of molecular chess, requiring a long strategy. Studying how these molecules interact with receptors in our brain provides scientists with the information they need to develop drugs which could reverse the effects of the toxin. In addition, some of these toxins provide lead compounds which have the potential to be developed into drugs to treat cardiovascular diseases, cancers and stomach ulcers. Professor Brimble is also keen to see her compounds find application in the clinical setting. Since 2001 she has been Head of Medicinal Chemistry at Neuren Pharmaceuticals, where two of her compounds are being trialled for the treatment of traumatic brain injury and Parkinson's disease. She has also been instrumental in setting up a degree course in medicinal chemistry which equips its students with the skills needed to see their compounds right through the commercial development process. In addition to subjects like biology, genetics and organic chemistry, students study intellectual property, good manufacturing practice, ethics and regulations. According to Professor Brimble, the course enjoys a high level of popularity. In terms of international collaboration, Professor Brimble has always had strong links to the UK, noting that as a Commonwealth country, New Zealand tends to look to England more than the US. 'We don't have the Union Jack on our flag for nothing,' she pointed out. In the light of what she has learnt in Brussels about FP7, she will look at extending her range of contacts in Europe, but points out that making these contacts takes time. Meanwhile, she says, 'there's a lot of momentum in the scientific community around the Asia-Pacific region to really build a strong ethos to collaborate'. Looking to the future, Professor Brimble is clear about her ambitions: she wants to know more about how shellfish toxins work and see if they could be turned into something that could act as a neuroprotective agent and promote nerve cell survival. 'That's quite a big ask, but I've got good collaborations with pharmacologists at the university that can help me do that,' she commented.

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