Rising Star Award, Basic Life Sciences: Andrew Riley, College of Pharmacy 

A man in a lab coat drawing a formula on clear glass
Andrew Riley in his lab. (Photo: Martin Hernandez/University of Illinois Chicago)

Alleviating drug addiction and treating pain without creating opioid dependence are two of the most difficult problems in medicine today. Andrew Riley, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UIC, believes solutions can be found in a surprising place: plants. 

An expert in medicinal chemistry, Riley searches for new drugs in natural sources, such as the akuamma tree and the Aristotelia family of evergreen shrubs and trees. Some cultures use the seeds and leaves of these plants to treat pain and infection. Riley zeroes in on the compounds that produce these effects and seeks to test and improve on them in the laboratory. 

“We start with compounds that we can fish out of nature, and they inspire us to work towards these different targets,” Riley said. “I find it fascinating how these small molecules can have such a profound effect on humans.” 

Akuamma seeds have long been used in Africa as a natural painkiller and recently gained broader popularity as a holistic medicinal supplement. To investigate it further, his laboratory isolated two chemicals in the plant that produce activity at the same opioid receptors that drugs such as morphine or fentanyl target. However, differences in chemical structure suggest that the akuamma derivatives may have unique properties, such as reduced side effects or risk of addiction. 

With Aristotelia plants, Riley’s group used chemicals found in the leaves to create new synthetic compounds that target a specific brain receptor involved in the rewarding effects of drugs. Designing a new inhibitor of this receptor could help prevent relapse in people fighting addiction to cocaine, alcohol, nicotine and other substances. 

“We’re just at the beginning of the story here,” Riley said. “We’ve made the first discoveries, but the ultimate prize for me is being able to help patients. I think that’s why most of us go into drug discovery.” 

Riley’s home at the College of Pharmacy has helped him find valuable collaborations to advance these research streams, both at the college and across campus with colleagues in the College of Medicine and the Department of Chemistry.  

“From day one, I realized it was such a unique and special department,” Riley said. “It’s so easy to meet with people that are interested in similar things, but it also can help me accomplish my goals.” 

Read about other recipients of the 2023 Researcher, Scholar and Inventor of the Year awards this week on UIC today, with new profiles posted each day. On April 22, you’ll find coverage on UIC today from the awards ceremony. 

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