In November 1998, Martin Burke was on his first clinical rotation in the MD/PhD program at Harvard Medical School when he met a 22-year-old cystic fibrosis patient who was taking 17 different medications. Knowing that a single missing chloride channel causes the disease, it bothered Burke that the treatment comprised such a large cocktail of drugs. It struck him immediately that science might be able to replace the missing ion channel in the same way that a prosthetic limb replaces a lost leg. "I wanted to develop prostheses on the molecular scale," he says.
As far back as Burke can remember, he wanted to become either a major league baseball player or a doctor. Unfortunately, baseball didn't pan out. So, as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University in 1994, he enrolled in pre-med courses, including an introductory organic chemistry class that would change his life. There, he met Christina White, a chemistry graduate student and his teaching assistant. Two things from that class stuck with him: chemistry and Christina. He and White, both now assistant professors of chemistry at the University of Illinois, married in 1996.
Captivated by chemistry but still with an eye to therapeutic applications, Burke designed his own undergraduate research project. He split his time between Henry Brem's neurosurgery lab and Gary Posner's chemistry lab to develop biodegradable polymers that deliver vitamin D derivatives to the brain for tumor treatment. The project "was entirely from his own initiative," says Brem. "It was obvious even then that he was an off-the-scale, extraordinary person."
When Burke started graduate school at Harvard in 1998, most
biologists used only small synthetic molecules to interfere with
proteins. Burke, however, wanted to use these compounds to rebuild protein
functions. Before he could achieve that goal though, he needed a more
efficient way of making the molecules. He used the chemistry of aromatic
furan rings to design multiple structural versions of molecular
skeletons, the backbones of small-molecule synthesis. He combined this
with conventional combinatorial approaches and created a library of 1,260
compounds in just five steps.
Building on his success in the lab, Burke also helped develop a more
general and systematic scheme for synthesizing small molecules.
After earning his PhD, Burke returned to medical school for two years of clinical rotations, but he realized that to achieve his visions of "molecular prostheses," he needed to devote himself entirely to research.
Since 2005, Burke has headed his own lab at the University of
Illinois where he's been investigating a small molecule called
amphotericin B, which is a natural bacterial product often used to treat
fungal infections. Amphotericin B works by self-assembling into ion
channels and integrating into lipid membranes. Burke hopes that by
tinkering with amphotericin B, he might be able to replicate ion channels
synthetically, and tailor them to treat specific diseases. To understand
the molecule's chemical biology, he knocked out specific parts of the
Title: Assistant Professor of Chemistry, University of Illinois at
1. M.D. Burke et al., "Generating diverse skeletons of small molecules combinatorially," Science, 302:613-8, 2003. (Cited in 108 papers) 2. M.D. Burke, S.L. Schreiber, "A planning strategy for diversity-oriented synthesis," Angew Chem Int Ed, 43:46-58, 2004. (Cited in 261 papers) 3. D.S. Palacios et al., "A post-PKS oxidation of the amphotericin B skeleton predicted to be critical for channel formation is not required for potent antifungal activity," J Am Chem Soc, 129:13804-5, 2007. (Cited in 2 papers)