Chemistry professor Max Majireck, right, talks with student researchers, from left, Will Strutton ’25, Ryan Rahman ’25, and Kimberly Chase ’24.
The world of chemists can be broadly divided into three groups: molecule modelers, measurers, and makers. Max Majireck, associate professor of chemistry and director of biochemistry, is a part of the third group. As he works to synthetically construct molecules, he lets new chemical developments guide him to discoveries with medical potential.

This summer, Majireck and seven students worked on three different research projects — one funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), one by the American Heart Association (AHA) and one by the Edward and Virginia Taylor Chemistry Research Fund — that have important medical implications.

The first project, which received $247,000 in NSF funding this year, began as a failed experiment. In 2016, Majireck’s lab wanted to synthesize a natural product that contained some anti-HIV activity. Though the experiment proved unsuccessful, the group continued to work with the compounds, eager to see if something more interesting could come out of their research. To their surprise, something did: a stable, isolated class of molecules, known as N-quaternized ketene N,O-acetals, that had been historically and theoretically regarded as unstable.

Majireck, Chrissy Crespo ’25, Christie Lam ’25, Will Strutton ’25, and John Frank ’24 used this class of molecules to begin developing a new class of reagents, materials used in chemical processes including the synthesis of antibiotics. This research will lay the foundation for future drug discovery. 

“It’s mostly exploration,” Strutton said. “We’re trying to see how we can transform our molecules into something that biologists and pharmacists can use.”

While this first research project does not have a specific target product in mind, the second project does. Majireck and Alex Szyperek ’24 investigated the total synthesis of Melokhanine A, a naturally occurring antibiotic compound traditionally used in Chinese folk medicine. A completely synthetic version of this compound, which has antibiotic activity against clinically important pathogens, would allow for its use in pharmaceuticals, while avoiding issues associated with direct plant extraction. 

“Nature is a great starting point for a lot of drugs, but extraction can be highly variable and only yield trace amounts of the active compound,” Majireck said. “Sometimes, you’d even have to wipe out the entire species just to harness enough for clinical use.”

During his research, Szyperek used Hamilton’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer to analyze the compound’s arrangement. 

Alex Szyperek ‘24
Alex Szyperek ’24 works in the Chemistry lab to analyze compounds. Photo: Zack Stanek

This instrument, along with the High-Performance Liquid Chromatography machine, were also critical for Kimberly Chase ’24 and Ryan Rahman ’25, who worked on Majireck’s third project, which received $154,000 in AHA funding this year. The research is a collaboration between Majireck’s lab and the Masonic Medical Research Institute in Utica. Together, they are studying a new treatment for atherosclerosis, the potentially life-threatening buildup of plaque in the arteries. 

Majireck explains the treatment as a Trojan Horse strategy. Certain immune cells, known as macrophages, target nanoparticles as foreign pathogens. By hiding CD47 protein inhibitors in these MMRI-developed nanoparticles, the researchers can trick macrophages into consuming the inhibitors. Once inside the macrophages, the inhibitors can play a role in breaking down arterial plaque.

Though Majireck’s summer research ended on July 12, these three projects will continue for years to come, offering future students the chance to grow in scientific knowledge and expertise. 

“[Majireck] thinks of us as team members and not just hands he needs,” Szyperek said. “I’m grateful that he gave me so much responsibility and trust. It really gave me more confidence and showed me that the career I want is possible.”

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