Exploring new depths in drug discovery

Hedrik Luesch and Debbie DeSantis
A mutual research interest brings together UF College of Pharmacy alumna and supporter Debbie DeSantis and Dr. Hendrik Luesch in search of cyanobacteria in the Florida Keys

College of Pharmacy alumna and supporter Debbie DeSantis, ʼ82, and Hendrik Luesch, Ph.D., an associate professor of medicinal chemistry, share a mutual interest in natural products. In May, the pair enjoyed a rare opportunity to connect in the Florida Keys to collect cyanobacteria, an organism that produces several medically important compounds that could be useful to treat cancer and other diseases.

The partnership represented more than just a research opportunity. Luesch serves as the Debbie and Sylvia DeSantis Chair in Natural Products Drug Discovery and Development at the College of Pharmacy, an endowed position funded by Debbie and her mother, Sylvia, in 2002. Debbie has taken interest in Luesch’s research in marine natural products chemistry and welcomed the opportunity to join him to collect cyanobacteria, which live on coral reefs around the world.

“It is amazing to be financially supported by a donor, but it is even more amazing that the same donor came out with us and helped us collect these cyanobacteria,” Luesch said.

In the shallow waters off the coast, the pair spent the day snorkeling in search of the seaweed-like organisms. Once removed from the water, the cyanobacteria were stored in plastic bags, frozen and transported back to the laboratory where researchers will use solvents to tease out a mixture of different compounds that may one day be effective in treating various diseases.

By going to new depths to understand Luesch’s research, DeSantis gained a new perspective on the significance of her endowment in supporting his efforts to advance new treatment discoveries.

“This is important work, and it is going to save lives,” DeSantis said. “It is an honor and privilege that I was able to be a part of this trip.”