Finding Causes and Cures in Nature
The research projects of John R. Porter, PhD, might appear varied, but they fall under one common umbrella: examining substances from the natural world that can cure our bodies or make them sick. “We’re using Western-style therapies derived from natural sources and not just herbal extracts to address human disease,” said Dr. Porter, director of University of the Sciences’ biological sciences graduate programs.
Right now, he’s taking that approach to three key issues: finding the cause of biliary atresia, biological production of podophyllotoxin (a cancer drug), and tuberculosis.
Biliary atresia is a rare and potentially deadly condition found in 1 in every 10,000 to 15,000 newborns. What causes the condition has remained elusive. Under a four-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Porter is working with researchers from Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania utilizing a specific plant imported from Australia and zebrafish to identify toxic compounds that could cause biliary atresia.
Podophyllotoxin is a naturally occurring compound that is the precursor to several drugs used to treat a variety of cancers. Podophyllotoxin is found in large quantities in only two plants in the world, and one of those plants has been collected almost to extinction. He was recently awarded another NIH grant to understand the biosynthesis of fungi that produce podophyllotoxin, with a plan to transfer those genes into organisms that would produce more of the compound rapidly and predictably.
Dr. Porter is also looking at a new way to stop tuberculosis (TB) infections. In a partnership with the National Cancer Institute, which has a database of 200,000 natural product extracts, he is looking at assays of extracts and compounds from natural sources that could inhibit a fundamental pathway in the bacteria.
For Dr. Porter, they’re all related. “In all of this, I’m focused on natural products,” he said.
“We’re using Western-style therapies derived from natural sources... to address human disease.”
—Dr. John R. Porter