Keith Hautala


College: Pharmacy

Second Nature: How Jurgen Rohr Sees Innovation

Published: May 5, 2014

Jurgen Rohr, director of the Division of Drug Discovery in the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy, finds inspiration for his innovations in nature. 


It's not just in his laboratory, where he heads one of the nation's top natural products research programs. You can also see it in his sunlit office, filled with lush green plants and copies of various paintings, featuring landscapes and flowers and other natural scenes.


"I painted some of these myself," Rohr says. "Others, you may recognize. It is probably presumptuous to hang my own paintings beside great masterpieces, I don't know. I have them here because I like them."


He points to one of his own, inspired by the "paint pots" at Yellowstone National Park. These geothermal mudpots — hot and acidic and reeking of rotten eggs from hydrogen sulfide gas — are home to several species of microorganisms that ring the pots with bright splashes of color.


"They're the only things that can live there," Rohr says, his enthusiasm visible. "When the temperature or the pH level changes, one species subsides and another takes over, and that's where you get all of the different colors. I find them very stimulating, visually."


When he's not in the laboratory innovating a new class of anticancer compounds, or in the classroom teaching a new generation of pharmacy leaders, Rohr prefers to be outdoors. He enjoys white-water rafting and kayaking, or hiking and camping in the Daniel Boone National Forest. He can tell you about the best trails in the Red River Gorge, including some that aren't on any maps. He can also tell you a little of the natural history of the area.


"The Appalachian forest is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet — certainly in the Northern Hemisphere," he says. "As the glaciers moved south during the last great Ice Age, they sort of pushed everything downward. As a result, there is a tremendous concentration of species here."


Rohr shares a photo of himself posing next to one such species, Magnolia macrophylla Michx, a rare bigleaf magnolia tree known for its enormous blossoms and even grander foliage.


"This can be found in the Red River Gorge," he says, "And it is the rarest and most spectacular of all magnolias."


Rohr's admiration for nature isn't just recreational, however. Professionally, Rohr is trying to put nature to work to make innovative drugs to treat cancer and other diseases. As a natural products chemist, Rohr studies how different organisms — plants, fungi, bacteria — create very complex chemicals from fairly simple building blocks.

"Nature has devised some very elegant methods for creating many different useful compounds," Rohr says. "Some of these are very difficult, if not impossible, to synthesize from scratch in the laboratory. So most drug discovery and development starts out with natural products."


On a molecular level, Rohr and his colleagues look at gene clusters that code for specific enzymes, and then seek to modify, manipulate and combine these genetic mechanisms to produce different products. The process is known as pathway engineering — or combinatorial biosynthesis, a term Rohr helped to create and popularize in the mid-1990s. It enables researchers, starting with one natural compound, to create a whole library of analogs.


Some of these re-engineered molecules could prove useful as new drugs that are more effective or better tolerated than their forerunners, with fewer side effects. In the world of cancer treatment, that means chemotherapy agents that more selectively target tumor cells while sparing normal, healthy cells from damage. In antibiotics, it means staying a few steps ahead of drug-resistant bacteria in what amounts to a molecular arms race.


Rohr is currently engaged in work with a class of antibiotics that have tumor-inhibiting effects, called aureolic acid (mithromycin) analogs. These have shown promise as a treatment for Ewing's sarcoma, a devastating bone cancer that affects primarily teenagers and young adults. While the lab results are encouraging, Rohr knows that it is a long journey from the bench to the bedside.

"This is one man's work over an entire career, a lifetime," Rohr says, holding up a monograph by a senior natural products researcher from his native Germany. He flips through its pages, a catalog of hundreds of compounds discovered or developed by its author. "Not one of these has been turned into a useful drug yet. Who knows, maybe someday … Of course, it is everybody's dream to discover a new drug that will actually help people and cure disease. But such discoveries are rare, so you cannot make that the only condition for your satisfaction, or you will be disappointed." 


Before joining the faculty at UK in 2002, Rohr was assistant and associate professor in the Department of Chemistry of the University of Göttingen, Germany, and associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences of the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. He has received continuous NIH funding since 2005. He has published more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and his work has been widely cited.


Since coming to UK, he has built the College of Pharmacy's natural products research group from the ground up, recruiting some of the most talented scientists in the field to join what has become one of the top 10 programs in the country. This year, Rohr received the Provost's Distinguished Service Professor Award in recognition of his academic excellence. Yet, when you ask Rohr about his various accomplishments, he is most likely to talk about his students.


"They really don't know how much I enjoy teaching," he says, giving the sense that he is somehow getting away with something, earning a living by doing what he loves. Then, softly, as though telling a secret: "I get as much out of it as they do."


If success after graduation is any indication, Rohr's students get a lot out of it. Out of the dozens of doctoral students that he has mentored, Rohr estimates that half have gone on to fill leadership positions in industry and academia. Still, when asked about his greatest strength, in terms of his own career, Rohr is quite deferential.


"There are better teachers than me," he says, without a hint of false modesty. "There are more productive researchers, with more funding and more publications. And there are people who have provided more service and greater leadership."


He smiles a little.


"But, maybe, if you take all of these things together, I am probably pretty hard to beat."



MEDIA CONTACT: Keith Hautala, (859) 323-2396;



Internship Info Session
LNFS Presents: Dallas Buyers Club
College of Law Welcomes Trevor Potter
Dancing at Lughnasa
LNFS Presents: Notes on Marie Menken
LNFS Presents: Edge of Tomorrow
UK Jazz Ensemble/ UK Lab Band
Earth & Environmental Science Student Open House
"Nerd Night" Exhibit and Concert
"Anne Braden: Southern Patriot" Film Screening and Discussion
Dancing at Lughnasa
LNFS Presents: My Neighbor Totoro
LNFS Presents: (500) Days of Summer
Men's Soccer vs. Old Dominion
Kentucky Volleyball vs. Alabama
Dancing at Lughnasa
Kentucky Football vs. South Carolina
Free Saturday Swing Dance Lessons
Rock Climbing @ Red River Gorge
Cross Cultural Workshop 2014
Swing Dancing!
Dancing at Lughnasa
Cross Cultural Workshop 2014
UK Children's Hospital/Birthing Center Annual Perinatal Loss "Walk To Remember"
Kentucky Volleyball vs. Texas A&M
Dancing at Lughnasa
Murals of Baltimore
Resumes and Cover Letters
Dancing at Lughnasa
Murals of Baltimore
Networking and Job Search
UK Choristers
Rock Star Professionalism Series
Stillness in Motion: The Essence of Symmetry - presented by Dr. Carl Lee, Mathematics
Dancing at Lughnasa
Murals of Baltimore
LNFS Presents: Night of the Living Dead
UK Law Day
Dancing at Lughnasa
Murals of Baltimore
LNFS Presents: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Mark Berry, Guest Percussion Recital
National Depression Screening Day
LNFS Presents: Torch Song Trilogy
Dancing at Lughnasa
LNFS Presents: Shut Up and Play the Hits
LNFS Presents: Watchmen
KLJ Data Privacy Symposium
Family Weekend Check-in
Big Blue Pantry Food Drive #1
Kentucky Women's Soccer vs. South Carolina
Family Weekend: Derek Hughes
Dancing at Lughnasa
Kentucky Football vs. ULM
Free Saturday Swing Dance Lessons
UK International Tent/ Tailgate Party
CT Surgery Symposium: Advances in the Surgical Management of Cardiothoracic Diseases:
Family Weekend Tent Party
Dancing at Lughnasa
DNT 101: A Taste of the Kentucky Doughnut Trail
Big Blue Pantry Food Drive #2
Kentucky Volleyball vs. Auburn
Sunday Lunch at Historic Spindletop Hall
Men's Soccer vs. Marshall
Job Club - Social Media and Your Career
Massage on the Go
LNFS Presents: The Last Samurai
UK Symphony Band Concert
Women's Forum Conference 2014
#TrendingTopics: Pornography vs. Morality
Career Assessment Workshop
LNFS Presents: The Tree of Life
LNFS Presents: Guardians of the Galaxy
UK Wind Symphony
LNFS Presents: Princess Mononoke
LNFS Presents: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Kentucky Women's Soccer vs. Ole Miss
Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
Paint the Town Blue
Free Kaplan Entrance Practice Exams
4th Annual Big Blue Soccer Tournament
Men's Soccer vs. New Mexico
Swing Dancing and Costumes?
Paint the Town Blue
UK Men's Chorus and acoUstiKats
Jazz Spectacular
UK Student Pajama Party
Kentucky Volleyball vs. LSU
Kentucky Women's Soccer vs. Florida
Paint the Town Blue
Midterm of 2014 Fall Semester
Returning to Work and Breastfeeding
Open Access Week Kickoff Event (Webcast)
Grad School 101
Royalty Showcase
Graduate and Professional School Prep Week: Preparing for Law School
Graduate and Professional School Prep Week: Grad School Panel: Surviving Your 1st Year
Film & Panel Discussion: Be Like Others
Graduate and Professional School Showcase
Your Publication, Your Choice: Choosing the Right Open Access Journal
Graduate and Professional School Prep Week
Graduate and Professional School Prep Week
Kitty Karnival
Study Tips for Medical School
LNFS Presents: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Thank-A-Donor Day
Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Information Session
Getting Into Medical School
Writing a Winning Personal Statement
Career Assessment Workshop
LNFS Presents: Marimbas From Hell
LNFS Presents: The Fault in Our Stars
Generation Open: Researchers' Roles in the Age of Openness
Homecoming Street Fair
LNFS Presents: Kiki's Delivery Service
LNFS Presents: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
"see blue." Day at Keeneland
Kentucky Football vs. Mississippi State
Free Saturday Swing Dance Lessons
UK Women's Choir and Paws and Listen
Bill Cooper Faculty Recital
UK Trumpet Ensemble
Undergraduate Research Information Session "How to Find A Mentor"
Job Club - How To Get A Job at UK: Updates on IES Applicant Tracking System
Common Reading Experience Author Lecture: Presenting Ishmael Beah
Internship Info Session
LNFS Presents: The Shining
Pinterest Party
Leadership Assessment
"see boo." Halloween Party
Society for the Promotion of Undergraduate Research (SPUR) Meeting
#UKEDTALKS: Design Thinking with Dr. John Nash
Kentucky Volleyball vs. Tennessee
Career Assessment Workshop
LNFS Presents: Lucy
LNFS Presents: Papirosen
Kentucky Women's Soccer vs. Alabama
LNFS Presents: ParaNorman
LNFS Presents: Carrie
All Hallow's Eve Concert (UK Symphony Orchestra)
Work-Life Retirement Conference
Oct 20
Midterm of 2014 Fall Semester 10/20/2014

Mon, 10/20/2014

Reset Page