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Research accolade for York plant scientist

Posted on 30 March 2016

A University of York scientist is to receive a major award by the Biochemical Society in recognition of the quality and impact of his research.

Professor Ian Graham

Professor Ian Graham, who is head of the Department of Biology at York and former Director of the University’s Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP), has won the Society’s 2017 Heatley Medal and Prize from a ‘very competitive field of candidates’.

He will give a lecture at a Biochemical Society conference during 2017 as well as being invited to submit an article related to the lecture to one of the Society’s learned publications.

The Heatley Medal and Prize is awarded for exceptional work in applying advances in biochemistry, particularly in developing practical uses that have created widespread benefits and value for society and so have enhanced the reputation of biochemical research as a source of wellbeing and prosperity.

The award is named after Dr Norman Heatley, who overcame wartime shortages to make the production of penicillin possible and paved the way for mass production.

Professor Graham, who was nominated for the honour by Professor Bob White, said: “I am thrilled to be awarded the Heatley Medal and Prize. I would like to thank the Biochemical Society and all the great scientists that have contributed to my laboratory over the years.

“Dr Heatley and the previous prize winners are an inspiration in applying biochemistry advances for the benefit of society and it is a huge honour to be in such company. This award will inspire us to carry on doing what we enjoy.”

Professor Graham and colleagues have applied modern molecular breeding approaches to develop improved varieties of two of the world’s major pharmaceutical crops -- Artemisia annua, the sweet wormwood plant that is the primary source of the leading anti-malarial drug artemisinin and Papaver somniferum (opium poppy), the primary source of opiate painkillers.

In the case of Artemisia annua, Professor Graham’s research provided the scientific foundation for CNAP to produce improved F1 hybrid varieties. Sales into Africa of CNAP F1 hybrid seed over the last three years have provided up to 240 million artemisinin combination therapy treatments for malaria sufferers. The majority of the world’s supply of artemisinin is produced from Artemisia annua grown in China. Following two years of extensive field trials against local varieties, the leading CNAP hybrid was registered in China in 2015.

Employing a unique strategy of combining transcriptomics, biochemical genetics and deep metabolite profiling, Professor Graham’s laboratory discovered that a cluster of ten genes is responsible for the production in opium poppy of noscapine a cough suppressant that has been found to have anti-cancer properties. Just last year his laboratory discovered the long sought after gene that is seen as a critical gateway step in the synthesis of the morphinan class of alkaloids, which include the painkiller drugs morphine and codeine.

These discoveries have enabled the development of molecular markers that have allowed rapid selection and breeding of bespoke poppy varieties that are already being grown commercially for production of noscapine as well as morphine and codeine.

In parallel with the release of the improved commercial varieties of both these crops, the underpinning science was published in landmark papers in the journal Science in 2010, 2012 and 2015.

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