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FAU Researcher Earns Top Award for Marine Natural Products

Four people standing side-by-side smiling. The third person from the left, a woman, is holding a wooden award plaque.

From left: Marcy Balunas, Ph.D., vice-chair of the 2024 Gordon Conference on Marine Natural Products; Hendrik Luesch, Ph.D., chair of the 2024 Gordon Conference on Marine Natural Products; Amy Wright, Ph.D., 2024 Scheuer Award recipient; and Bill Baker, Ph.D., member of the Scheuer family who presented the award.

Amy Wright, Ph.D., research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, recently received the Paul J. Scheuer Award in Marine Natural Products during the Gordon Conference on Marine Natural Products in Ventura, California. The biennial Scheuer award is considered the foremost accolade in the field of marine natural products chemistry.

Wright has conducted research in the field of natural products chemistry for more than 35 years. As a member of the research faculty at FAU Harbor Branch, Wright serves as director of the University’s Center of Excellence in Biomedical and Marine Biotechnology and leads the natural products chemistry team. Her research has contributed to the structure elucidation of more than 100 marine natural products and the identification of their activities and modes of action. These discoveries have helped advance the progress of developing new treatments for cancer and other deadly diseases.

Wright contributed to elucidating the structure of ecteinascidin 743, which was developed into the drug YondelisTM, a treatment for ovarian cancer and advanced soft-tissue sarcomas. She was a member of the steering committee for the clinical development of the potent tubulin active compound discodermolide, and her team identified the tubulin polymerizing activity of the related compound, dictyostatin-1. Both discodermolide and dictyostatin-1 have significantly contributed to the understanding of tubulin as a target for cancer therapies.

Wright’s team discovered many potent cytotoxic compounds including neopeltolide, lasonolides C-G, and the potent anti-mitotic agent leiodermatolide. The group contributed to understanding the cellular effects of the lasonolides, and to identifying leiodermatolide’s activity in reducing pancreatic tumors in vivo.

Her team has also worked on infectious diseases including the discovery of dragmacidin G and identifying its broad-spectrum antibiotic activity.

She is also recognized for her contributions to exploration of deepwater habitats to collect unique organisms that produce unusual natural products. Over her career she has participated as the science observer on 238 dives in manned submersibles to depths of up to 3,000 feet.

To date, her work on marine natural products has led to more than 100 publications and 33 patents. Wright is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and the American Society of Pharmacognosy.

“I was a bit stunned when I heard that I was selected for this award, as this is the top award in marine natural products chemistry and past recipients have all been pioneers in their field,” Wright said. “I am incredibly honored to have joined their ranks.”

Wright’s contributions to the marine natural products field are not limited to research and discovery. She shares her knowledge through efforts to train the next generation of natural products chemists. For 15 years, Wright has received funding from the Gertrude E. Skelly Foundation to support an undergraduate summer internship program where students have the opportunity to gain real-world laboratory experience in activities that include sponge cell culture, marine microbiology and the use of natural compounds to treat cancer. Wright has also served as a mentor to doctoral and postdoctoral students.

“Amy can solve structures in an afternoon but patiently watches as her students piece the structure together on their own, only providing hints when they get stuck,” said Esther Guzmán, Ph.D., a research professor at FAU Harbor Branch and Wright’s mentee when she first came to the institute as a postdoctoral investigator. “She is clearly outstanding in her work on marine natural compounds, and her love of the field is inspiring to the many students she mentors.”

The Paul J. Scheuer Award in Marine Natural Products Chemistry was established in the early 1990s to honor the late professor from the University of Hawaii who is considered a pioneer in the field. The biennial award established in his name recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the field of marine natural products chemistry and in training the next generation of scientists.


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