Dr. Daniel Romo, professor of chemistry at Texas A&M University, has been selected to receive the prestigious Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award in recognition of his pioneering research in the chemical synthesis of natural products and studies of their mechanism of action, biosynthesis and potential for drug discovery.
The MERIT Award program, which is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its affiliated institutes and centers, extends funding to experienced researchers who have superior research programs and who have demonstrated a long-term commitment to and success in research. Romo is one of 12 researchers selected thus far for 2009 through the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), based on the recommendations of the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council.
Less than 5 percent of all NIH-funded investigators merit selection for the highly distinctive award, which includes up to 10 years of grant support without the administrative burdens associated with frequent preparation and submission of grant applications.
Romo’s five-year, $1.77 million MERIT award extends his NIGMS grant, “Synthetic/Mechanistic Studies of Bioactive Marine Agents,” now in its 15th year, for an additional five years, with a possibility of administrative renewal at NIH for another five in 2014.
“This award came as a great surprise and blessing,” Romo said. “I must give credit to the excellent graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and also undergraduates whom I have had and continue to have the privilege of working with and who contributed to this program. They are the ones who really made this possible.”
Romo, who is one of three current MERIT Award winners in the Texas A&M College of Science (along with Raymond J. Carroll, Department of Statistics, 2005; Tadhg Begley, Department of Chemistry, 2008), is only the sixth Texas A&M faculty member to be chosen for the award while employed by the university since the program’s inception in 1987.
“We are extraordinarily fortunate to have Dan Romo on our faculty, and this recognition of how valuable his research is shows how highly regarded he is on the national scene,” said Dr. H. Joseph Newton, dean of the College of Science.
A member of the Texas A&M faculty since 1993, Romo has spent the past decade researching the potential of compounds found in marine species, such as sponges, by synthesizing them in the laboratory in order to exploit their utility in basic studies of human cell biology and as lead compounds for drug development. In studying a particular natural product, pateamine A (PatA), isolated from a species of sponge found in the chilly waters off New Zealand’s coast, Romo and his collaborators discovered that it inhibits protein synthesis in human cells and thus has potential as an anticancer agent.
Because PatA has proven to be 2,000 times more toxic to tumor cells than to healthy cells, researchers and pharmaceutical companies view it as an attractive lead compound in the fight against cancer and an important tool for basic studies of mammalian protein synthesis. Since achieving the first laboratory chemical synthesis of PatA in 1998, Romo’s group has been synthesizing analogs and derivatives and, in collaboration with his long-term research partner, Prof. Jun O. Liu from Johns Hopkins University, they have tested them for improved biological activity. One of these derivatives that can be synthesized in 10 fewer steps than PatA exhibits nearly equipotent anticancer properties and was studied by two pharmaceutical companies in the Boston area for its potential for chemotherapy.
With the help of his MERIT award funding, Romo and his group will continue to study several marine natural products with the ultimate goal of identifying which receptors in the body are perturbed by these compounds, with the potential for leading to useful biochemical tools and leads for drug development.
“Daniel Romo is an extremely talented researcher, and his research represents an extremely vibrant part of our program, as evidenced by both the NIH MERIT Award as well as his previous awards,” said Dr. David H. Russell, Applied Biosystems/MDS Sciex Professor of Mass Spectrometry in Chemistry and head of the Department of Chemistry. “It is equally important, however, to acknowledge his abilities as an educator and mentor to our undergraduate and graduate students. Dr. Romo’s dedication to teaching and mentoring was recently recognized by a college-level AFS Teaching award, and among our students, he has an enviable record for his abilities as a research director.”
Romo received his doctorate in chemistry from Colorado State University in 1991 and spent two years as an American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University before coming to Texas A&M, where he previously earned a bachelor of arts in chemistry and biology in 1986. His many awards and honors include a Texas A&M University Office of Technology Commercialization Excellence in Innovation Award (2008), a Pfizer Award for Creativity in Organic Synthesis (2001-03), the Novartis Chemistry Lectureship (2001-02), a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award (1999), a Zeneca Excellence in Chemistry Award (1999), an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship (1998) and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (1996). A previous Texas A&M College of Science Montague Center for Teaching Excellence Scholar, he is scheduled to be recognized this fall with a Texas A&M Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement College-Level Award in Teaching for 2009.