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York researcher to study medicinal potential of East Asian tree

Posted on 9 May 2019

A University of York researcher has been awarded a Future Leaders Fellowship from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to investigate how a small tree native to East Asia could help in the creation of new medicines.

Dr Benjamin Lichman smiling in the lab.

Dr Benjamin Lichman, from the University’s Department of Biology, will study Daphniphyllum macropodum, a tree renowned primarily for its shiny foliage, but which also produces a remarkable array of complex nitrogen-containing chemicals.

These chemicals are unlike any other known chemicals from plants, animals or microbes and have been shown to have anti-cancer and anti-HIV properties, alluding to the potential for medical use.

Chemical machinery

Dr Lichman said: “In this project, we aim to understand how Daphniphyllum macropodum makes its complex alkaloids. Through this knowledge we will gain access to the unique chemical machinery found in the plants; this will help us make other complex molecules in the future.

“We will also develop methods for producing high quantities of the alkaloids using other organisms, such as tobacco or yeast. This will allow us to obtain large enough quantities of the chemicals to determine whether they have potential as therapeutics, for example as antibiotics or chemotherapy agents.”

The Future Leader Fellowship awarded to Dr Lichman will provide resources to embark on this ambitious, long-term, multidisciplinary project.

Brightest researchers

The fellowship scheme supports major interdisciplinary research programmes with wide-ranging societal, scientific and ethical impacts - led by the brightest researchers and innovators at universities across the country.

Science and Innovation Minister Chris Skidmore, said: “From Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of the World Wide Web, to Rosalind Franklin whose work was critical in understanding DNA, we have a rich history of talented individuals who have paved the way for ground-breaking research and discoveries in their fields.

“Our investment in these Future Leaders Fellows will enable the brightest and best of our scientists and researchers to work with leading lights in industry, to help their research move from the laboratory to the commercial market.

“This support to the next generation of scientists and researchers is a key part of our modern Industrial Strategy, and our commitment to raise R&D spend to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027 will maintain the UK’s position as a world-leader in science and innovation and building on our historic legacy.”