From Carnivorous Plants to Mushrooms: Looking for the Next Generation of Pharmaceuticals

A profile on one of BTI’s researchers, Francois Gaascht

Rachel Zussman (writer), Jenna Privatsky (photographer)

BTI researcher Francois Gaascht has dedicated his career to natural product discovery and the search for new drug therapies

Can local mushrooms lead researchers to new treatments for common fungal infections or even cancer? BTI postdoc Francois Gaascht thinks so.  Working in the Schmidt-Dannert lab, Gaascht focuses on the isolation and identification of natural products, those compounds found in nature that have therapeutic potential. When extracted properly and studied thoroughly, these substances can lead to life-saving drugs.

Gaascht is particularly interested in understanding the biochemical processes underlying drug therapies, a painstakingly long process. His current project, funded through the Minnesota Future Grants Program, involves the screening and isolation of natural chemical compounds from Basidiomycota mushrooms found in the Upper Midwest. Gaascht is focused on molecules from Basidiomycota that may display antifungal properties. In a later stage, the lab will evaluate their potential for other therapeutic applications.

Collecting and cultivating the mushrooms can take months, and the development of a molecule into a potential drug can take decades. Sometimes, a promising therapeutic molecule that passed all laboratory tests may be ineffective or even toxic when tested on humans, and require the research team to start over. But Gaascht remains determined. “I find the research project to be compelling – it fit perfectly with my professional goals. I love that I have the opportunity to work with different parts of the project – from the collection of mushrooms to preparation of culture to isolation of molecules, and finally, to identification of molecules. I do it all from A to Z,” says Gaascht.

Although Gaascht currently studies local mushrooms, he has previously extracted natural products from exotic agents such as carnivorous plants and Indian spices. In fact, he is fascinated that compounds found in fruits and vegetables have the ability to exert biological activity and can consequently serve as anticancer therapeutic agents. He has also analyzed the natural products found within coffee, licorice, and walnuts, and discovered that several molecules found within these common foods exhibit anticancer properties. “Unfortunately, the prevalence of cancer is only increasing in modern society. Nature produces a huge diversity of bioactive molecules that are just waiting to be discovered, developed, and used as the next generation of drugs,” says Gaascht.

Originally from Luxembourg, Gaascht spent several years working at research institutions in Europe. When the opportunity to work at the Schmidt-Dannert arose this past fall, he made the decision to move to the United States, despite his initial hesitations regarding the cold Minnesota winters. He plans to stay at BTI for the foreseeable future and hopes that one day his natural products will be developed into lifesaving drugs that can cure cancer and other debilitating illnesses. When asked what he most enjoys about his job, he earnestly replied, “I am challenged every day and am constantly trying new things, my work is not routine. I also genuinely enjoy that I do not have to wear a tie and jacket to work.” In fact, he is currently working through his personal collection of 268 t-shirts!

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