York Research Spotlight : Professor Ian Graham FRS

Department: Biology

Current project: Measurement of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in bespoke hemp oil seed varieties.

Advice to aspiring scientists: “If you’re passionate about your subject you’ll find ways to solve problems”

Selected publication: The genetic map of Artemisia annua L. identifies loci affecting yield of the antimalarial drug artemisinin

Our university’s academics pride themselves in conducting research into areas that get us one step closer to solving issues of global importance. This trend is especially seen within the Department of Biology. For this reason, you would have trouble finding a more fitting character to head the department than Prof Ian Graham. To say the very least, Prof Graham is a devoted scientist who has conducted research across institutions including Stanford and Oxford. Prof Graham has attempted to address the real world issue of shortages in plant-based medicinal ingredients.

A photo of Dr. Ian Graham in 2016 at the Royal Society admissions day in 2016

This includes noscapine-producing poppies(Papaver somniferum) used for their cough-suppressing and potentially anti-cancer characteristics, as well as sweet wormwood(Artemisia annua) more recently applied to treat malaria.

The 1970s discovery that a compound produced by A.annua named Artemisinin was useful in treating malaria when combined with other medicinal compounds earned Chinese chemist YouYou Tu the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine. It was only after her discovery that Artemisinin Combination Therapies (ACTs) became the WHO recommended treatment for malaria in 2001. Following this suggestion, demand for ACTs grew which led to an increase in the price of A.annua. This consequently led to a decrease in accessibility for lower-income individuals suffering from malaria. The Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) at the University established an Artemisia focused project in 2006 funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Prof Graham led the project alongside Dr Dianna Bowles. The team worked to selectively breed a hybrid strain of A.annua which yielded high levels of Artemisinin and was also resistant to particular climates.

After the creation of the strain named Hyb8001r, rigorous test trials were held in 13 locations across China, India, Madagascar and Uganda. In all cases, mean Artemisinin yields of Hyb8001r were higher than those of an existing strain. Hyb8001r went on to be registered in China —the world’s largest grower of Artemisia— under the name 药客佳蒿1号 (pronounced YaoKe JiaHao YiaHao first word sounding like ‘York’) whose symbols mean ‘medicine man’, ‘good Artemisia variety’ and ‘number 1’, respectively.

The CNAP is now partnered with Thailand-based company East-West Seed to further produce and distribute the high-yielding seeds in order to increase the global inventory of Artemisinin and decrease prices making ACTs more accessible for those who need them. Prof Graham was awarded the Heatley Medal by the Biochemical Society last year. The medal is awarded to an individual for their work in applying biochemistry for the widespread benefit of society.

Apart from his long-term work towards improving Artemisinin yields, Prof Graham also led the team that uncovered the gene in P.somniferum which allows the species to produce morphinans (class of compounds that include morphine and codeine). Identification of the STORR gene was the last piece needed to deduce the metabolic pathway used by P.somniferum to synthesise morphine. The discovery opens many doors including the possibility of creating microbes which synthesise these medicinal compounds. Importantly, it gives us the chance to apply molecular plant breeding techniques to create bespoke high compound yielding hybrids of P.somniferum. Previously funded by the opiate branch of GSK, the University team continued working alongside Sun Pharmaceuticals after they purchased the branch.

A rather ordinary looking plant, A.Annua is capable of synthesising useful anti-malarial compounds. Image: Ton Rulkens

A new poppy variety created by the researchers has reduced the cost of producing noscapine by 25 percent in the last three years. These poppies provided an estimated 70 percent of global noscapine supply for cough suppressants in 2016-2017.

The Fellow of the Royal Society believes the most important thing we can do as students is to identify what interests us most and pursue these with passion. Coming from a small farm in County Tyrone of northwest Ireland, Prof Graham is proof that genuine passion can bring you one step closer to success.