Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble | A modern-day alchemist

09 May 2018
Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble, School of Chemical Sciences
Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble

Pioneering scientist, University of Auckland staff member and alumna, Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble (BSc 1982, MSc 1983) is one of New Zealand’s most celebrated scientists.

The Professor of Organic and Medicinal Chemistry is a modern-day alchemist, masterfully turning natural products such as shellfish toxins and compounds isolated from rare fungi into new drugs to fight cancer, infectious disease and neurodegenerative diseases.

Natural products provide unlimited opportunity for discovery at the interface with biology and medicine. Some 63 percent of all new drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, for example, are inspired by, or made from, natural products.

“Nature throws up complicated chemical structures that have evolved over thousands of years for a specific purpose,” Professor Brimble says. “If we can fine-tune their molecular structure we can create potential drugs that are even better than nature can provide.”

She compares creating a synthetic compound from nature to the logic and rationale behind a game of chess.  “Sometimes you get really close, but you can’t quite complete the synthesis, so you haven’t got ‘checkmate’.”

She says it may take as little as a month to identify and characterise a natural molecule, but it can take years to figure out how to make it. “It demands academic and manipulative rigour, creativity, dedication, persistence and hard work. It’s like composing a piece of music or creating a beautiful artwork.”

Emeritus Professor Joerg Kistler, former Director of the University’s Institute for Innovation in Biotechnology, says Professor Brimble is working at the international cutting edge of complex medicinal chemistry. “What sets her apart from mainstream chemists is her outstanding innovation skills.”

Adds Dr Di McCarthy, on the Advisory Board for the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland. “Margaret brings not only excellence and precision to her research but intellectual creativity, drive and diversity. She’s a fantastic role model for other women in science – and we really need them. “

Professor Brimble enrolled at the University of Auckland in two minds as to whether she’d do Arts or Sciences. A “logical and organised” chemistry class persuaded her to take Chemistry and a Science degree in her second year.

“I remember making aspirin. I just really enjoyed making things – I spent hours in the labs – and then I understood that organic chemistry was making things so I studied it at masters level and decided that was the area I wanted to pursue.”

She won a Commonwealth Scholarship to do her PhD at Southampton University and made an antibiotic that treated coccidial infections in poultry.

She returned to New Zealand to a lectureship at Massey University. Then she went to Sydney University and was promoted to Associate Professor. While there she became pregnant (with her daughter Rebecca) and she and her husband Mark, who works in IT, decided to return to New Zealand.

She returned to the University of Auckland to do teaching and research and set up New Zealand’s first medicinal chemistry degree.

Today she supervises some 20 PhDs. In the early days she had only three, but over the course of her career she has supervised more than 150 postgraduate students, including 60 PhD students, and is considered a superb mentor with an outstanding ability to convey her enthusiasm in science to young people.

 “The philosophy I try and instil in my students is to think big and do big science that will be noticed outside New Zealand.”

Professor Brimble puts in long hours, has published over 500 scientific papers and is the named inventor on 30+ patents. She travels all over the world to give lectures and continues to promote medicinal chemistry and the potential benefits it can offer humankind. 

“I’d like to see a self-sustaining medicinal chemistry centre up and running in New Zealand with a critical mass of funding flowing into it from overseas. And I would like to see New Zealand on the international map as a world class hub for drug discovery and development.”

Associated information