Maker Story: Marty Burke

Photo by: L. Brian Stauffer

Molecular Prosthetics 

Dr. Marty Burke is a professor of Chemistry, member of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, and is head researcher on a team that is revolutionizing the approach to traditional medicine. Marty’s team, comprised of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Harvard Medical School and Northeastern University, has achieved breakthroughs in research on molecular prosthetics, a unique new discovery of molecules that could change the way doctors approach traditional medicine.

In a healthy and normally functioning body, iron atoms can travel through protein-based transporters, as needed, across membranes throughout the human body. However, in the case of loss or dysfunction of these iron-transporting proteins, iron atoms are unable to permeate membranes and disperse across the body, causing deficiencies of iron in places it is needed.

Essentially, the person becomes ill because iron atoms that perform necessary functions are deficient in major parts of the body. This can lead to various diseases and conditions such as anemia. According to Marty, figuring out how to treat such deficiencies of protein function instead of just the symptoms that result from such deficiencies is “a huge unmet medical need”. Marty’s lab recently discovered that the small molecule called hinokitiol, a natural product derived from Japanese cypress trees, has the ability to help iron atoms travel through the membranes they otherwise are unable to cross. Much in the same way that a prosthetic restores the functionality of a hand or limb, these molecules replicate the functions of missing proteins, thus operating like prosthetics on the molecular scale. The team hopes this new approach will lead to new treatments for a number of human diseases caused by missing proteins.  

Hinokitiol specifically may be able to treat anemia, but this concept of molecular prosthetics might also be applicable to a wide range of other conditions caused by protein deficiencies, such as neurodegenerative disorders and cystic fibrosis. Although still in its early stages, the discovery of molecular prosthetics may represent a new way to approach traditional medicine that was not previously possible. Marty continues to make an impact the scientific community by making molecular building blocks his lab discovered commercially available and an impact on the University of Illinois academic community by helping to build the Molecule Maker Lab, one of the University of Illinois’ Health Maker Labs, an interconnected network of design and making facilities that stand ready and able to enable everyone to participate in the process of improving human healthcare.