Chemist Hans Renata named 2021 Sloan Research Fellow

February 16, 2021

JUPITER, FL—A Scripps Research chemist who employs enzymes as tools to assemble useful natural compounds has been awarded a prestigious 2021 Sloan Research Fellowship for his work.

In his Florida-based lab, chemist Hans Renata, PhD, devises ways to make complex compounds found in nature out of more easily obtained building blocks, thus opening the compounds for wider scientific evaluation.

Renata has successfully made challenging anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and other compounds with unprecedented efficiency by building an expanding toolbox of useful enzymes for biosynthesis.

For his progress, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced today that Renata is one of 128 early career scientists from 58 institutions nationwide to receive its two-year, $75,000 fellowship. The awards are given annually to recognize scientists in the United States and Canada whose innovation and accomplishments mark them as next-generation scientific leaders, says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

“A Sloan Research Fellow is a rising star, plain and simple,” Falk says. “To receive a Fellowship is to be told by the scientific community that your achievements as a young scholar are already driving the research frontier.”

The natural world is full of complex chemicals that living things have developed as part of their survival mechanisms, and many of these chemicals hold important medicinal potential. The problems is that there aren’t enough sea sponges or yew trees in the world to supply some of these rare but special compounds.

Building them synthetically from basic building blocks makes it possible for them to be studied by the wider scientific community, or even made into commercially available medicines. But some natural compounds are very challenging to build using traditional synthetic techniques, Renata says.

Enzymes are proteins that living things use constantly to build, break apart, or otherwise catalyze the processes of life, aiding in activities ranging from digestion to metabolism. Renata has helped identify several enzymes that, tweaked and harnessed for desirable traits, help solve longstanding challenges faced by synthetic chemists.

Notable among Renata’s many scientific accomplishments was his successful use of a microbial enzyme called GlbB to act with specificity on certain carbon-hydrogen bonds, allowing for assembly of a challenging compound called cepafungin I.

A recent publication from his lab and Scripps Research collaborator Alexander Adibekian, PhD, showed that cepafungin I has strong, specific inhibitory activity toward a protein complex called a proteasome, making it a potentially useful anticancer drug candidate.

Renata says there’s great potential for biosynthesis to benefit humanity. Carbon-hydrogen bonds can become transformation points on molecules if additional specific, honed enzymatic tools can be developed to manipulate them, he says. The Sloan fellowship will help advance this work, he says.

Ben Shen, PhD, professor and co-chair of the Scripps Research chemistry department, praised Renata’s insights into synthesis of natural products.

“Hans has rapidly established himself as a leader of biocatalytic carbon-hydrogen functionalization, exhibiting a remarkable creativity and originality in combining enzymes as biocatalysts, with great insight into natural product synthesis” Shen says.

In addition to being an outstanding scientist, Renata is a much-appreciated mentor to his interns, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. In 2018, The Society of Research Fellows at Scripps Research, Florida named Renata Outstanding Mentor, saying he embodies both patience and high expectations.

The Sloan Fellowship represents one of the most prestigious awards available to early-career scientists. Many past fellows have gone on to become towering figures in science, the Foundation says. More than 50 past awardees have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.

Renata says the credit is shared by his lab members and colleagues.

“This work would not be possible without the enormous contributions, creativity and hard work from my lab members,” Renata says. “I also must credit the unique Scripps Research ecosystem and valuable counsel from mentors and friends in the chemistry department for this recognition.”

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