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Natural products researcher discovers potential disease treatments in unusual places

Roby Hill | MUSC News Center | February 2, 2016

Dr. Mark Hamann
Sarah Pack

Dr. Mark Hamann, a natural products specialist, says the biodiversity around Charleston is a big draw for researchers. 

Mark Hamann, Ph.D., has a potential way to treat MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and it might be sitting outside your window.

The dreaded “superbug” MRSA kills thousands of Americans annually and is hard to treat because of its resistance to antibiotics. With its ability to strike those in the best possible health (athletes) and those in the most sterile conditions (hospitals), MRSA has raised significant public concern and while it has become better controlled, untreatable cases are still common.

Enter Hamann -- the new endowed chair in drug discovery at the Medical University of South Carolina -- and the sycamore tree.

“We found a promising novel composition in the leaf of the sycamore tree that could be an effective antibiotic for MRSA,” said Hamann, a natural products specialist who joined the South Carolina College of Pharmacy at MUSC this fall as the new Carol and Charles Cooper Endowed Chair in Pharmacy. “The healthcare industry has made some progress against MRSA but we could certainly use additional antibiotics with unusual mechanisms of action. In recent years greater than or equal numbers of deaths occur from staph infections than from AIDS.”

The speed with which the new product could reach the general patient population depends on additional testing and funding.

“We’re in preclinical development and looking at ways to scale up production, determine the best vehicle for administration and start clinical trials,” said Hamann, who believes Charleston has much to offer biotech startups in the natural products industry. “Fortunately, a product like this has a higher probability of success than other disease areas because there is less disease-state variability as you go through the clinical trial process.”

sponge to cure pancreatic cancer
This sponge generates an extremely potent lead for pancreatic cancer which is almost untreatable. It was collected from -1000M or so off the Aleutian Islands by Dr. Bob Stone’s team from NOAA Fisheries Alaska. 

Hamann and his team discovered the potential of the sycamore leaf while he was still at the University of Mississippi, where he was professor of pharmacognosy, pharmacology, pharmacy practice, chemistry and biochemistry. His lab often attracted researchers from around the globe eager to use the facilities, and when a visiting faculty member from Pakistan needed material to study, he collected some local plants for her. Sycamore leaves were among the 10 specimens. His graduate students helped extract the compound and the team discovered the novel molecular composition.

His lab makes a habit of discovering exciting possibilities in areas that range from banal to sublime. The drug discovery pipeline the new SmartState chair brings to the Center of Economic Excellence in Drug Discovery includes:

  • an extract from Hawaiian algae that could be effective against breast cancers resistant to chemotherapy
  • a never-described molecule from a standard lemon’s zest that might be able to replace a common synthetic yellow color dye
  • about 30 new compounds from a deep sea sponge the team collected off the Aleutian Isles, requiring submersibles to explore the ocean bottom 

“Animals living at 1,000 feet below the ocean biosynthesize metabolites very different from those that you can collect anywhere else,” said Hamann.

He earned his bachelor’s in chemistry and biology from Bemidji State University in Minnesota before completing his Ph.D. in marine natural products chemistry at the University of Hawaii. He also completed postdoctoral studies at McMurdo Sound Antarctica. He has worked as a manufacturing chemist for Solvay Pharmaceuticals, is adjunct scientist for Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and is co-founder and CEO of Oxford Pharmaceutical Development.

“We were most fortunate to successfully recruit Mark Hamann as the Charles and Carol Cooper Endowed Chair in Pharmacy,” said Patrick Woster, interim vice chair of the SCCP’s Department of Drug Discovery and Biomedical Sciences, where Hamann is appointed. “He is an internationally recognized expert in the area of natural product drug discovery, and as such adds an exciting new area of research expertise to our department. In addition, as a SmartState endowed chair, he will greatly enhance the ongoing drug discovery efforts at MUSC and in the state of South Carolina.”

 sponge with antimalarial properties
Mark Hamann
 A sponge that has been studied extensively in treating malaria may also help in the control of metastasis and tumor cell migration.

One of the ways SCCP and MUSC were able to attract Hamann was the resource-rich area surrounding the Lowcountry. Hawaii and California are two of the three most abundant biodiversity hotspots in the country. The third one surrounds Charleston, with the Appalachian Mountains on one side and the state of Florida on the other, with two isolated spots on the state borders around Savannah, Georgia and Wilmington, North Carolina.

The availability of extensive testing facilities was also a draw. MUSC has three magnetic resonance machines (850, 600 and 400 MHz) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has three more at Hollings Marine Laboratory, a world-class research facility shared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the College of Charleston, NIST and MUSC.  In addition, the mass spectrometry core led by Richard Drake, SmartState Endowed Chair of Proteomics, provides state-of-the-art mass imaging facilities.  

Hamann hopes he is not the last natural products expert to be attracted by these features, along with Charleston itself.

“I feel the biodiversity around Charleston and the availability of NIST and MUSC supported technologies will be a tremendous asset in recruiting faculty and students,” said Hamann, whose team at full complement will include about a dozen researchers. “This area has an opportunity to become a real niche in the biotech industry.”

Mark T. Hamann, At a Glance

Carol and Charles Cooper Endowed Chair of Pharmacy
SmartState Endowed Chair in the Center of Economic Excellence in Drug Discovery

Interests include the isolation and synthesis of marine natural products with activity against cancer, malaria, tuberculosis and neurological disorders

  •  Has published nearly 200 papers involving the characterization of natural products including marine invertebrates, plants, algae and their associated bacteria and fungi
  •  Section editor of Biochimica and Biophysica et Acta and is a member of the National Institutes for Health (NIH) Synthetic and Biological Chemistry Study Section
  •  Primary Investigator on numerous NIH grants including RO1s and has mentored more than 100 undergraduate, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty
  • Has worked as a manufacturing chemist for Solvay Pharmaceuticals and is adjunct scientist for Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences
  •  Co-founder and CEO of Oxford Pharmaceutical Development

Roby Hill is director of communications with the South Carolina College of Pharmacy




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Dr. Mark Hamann discusses drugs created from things found in nature.

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