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Brittany Jennings
June 29, 2022

UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy Ph.D. candidates Holli-Joi Martin and Jessica Beers are recipients of the American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education’s (AFPE) 2022 Pre-Doctoral Fellowship.

The goal of the fellowship is to support high performing students who will ultimately improve patient and public health, according to the AFPE website.

Meet Holli-Joi Martin

Ph.D. candidate Holli-Joi Martin.

“Receiving the highly competitive and prestigious AFPE Pre-Doctoral Fellowship is an absolute honor. Being a first-generation graduate student and woman in data science, I am so grateful to all my mentors whose guidance and support of my research interests have enabled me to grow into the person I am today,” Martin said. “Being recognized for my hard work through the receipt of this fellowship is extremely encouraging and inspires me to continue raising the bar, reaching my goals, and inspiring others to do the same.”

Martin, who studies in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy’s Division of Chemical Biology and Medicinal Chemistry, is pursuing the discovery of broad-spectrum antiviral drugs. Martin is mentored by Alexander Tropsha, Ph.D.

“Since starting in the CBMC Division as a graduate student, Holli-Joi has engaged in several computational molecular modeling projects with one common objective: Improve the accuracy and practical value of models to accelerate the experimental discovery of potent drug candidates. This award recognizes the potential impact of Holli-Joi’s work on the field of antiviral drug discovery, especially agents that could have broad spectrum activity against current and even future pathogens,” Tropsha said.

Martin is currently working on her thesis, “The Computer-Aided Discovery And Validation Of Broad-Spectrum Antiviral Agents For Emerging Viruses.” She said in the 21st Century, the population has experienced about 13 new viral emergences that have resulted in significant morbidities and deaths.

Martin said the funding from this award will allow her to purchase promising potential broad-spectrum antiviral compounds to test her research hypothesis. She also plans to utilize award funds to attend the 2023 International Conference on Antiviral Research in Lyon, France, where she will showcase her research.

“By focusing on the development and application of novel and effective computational drug discovery approaches, I hope to accelerate and dramatically reduce the cost of drug development, which may ultimately provide easier and more accessible care to underdeveloped countries,” Martin added. “I am also very interested in developing and implementing cutting-edge computational methods to reduce and ultimately replace animal testing. I am committed to making strides to dedicate my career to this path.”

In addition to this award recognition, Martin received The Chu Family Foundation Scholarship for Early Career Women in Science, an international award she will receive at XXIV IRT by IS3NA in Stockholm, Sweden in August. She also received a travel award to attend the conference. Remarkably, Holli-Joi received all three independent awards in one week.

Meet Jessica Beers

Ph.D. candidate Jessica Beers.

About the AFPE Pre-doctoral Fellowship, Beers said,It feels wonderful! I am very grateful to be recognized by AFPE and look forward to continuing my research as a Predoctoral Fellow next year. I feel very fortunate to be supported by my mentors and faculty in the Division of Pharmacotherapy and Experimental Therapeutics who have guided me in developing this research project.”

Beers, who studies in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy’s Division of Pharmacotherapy and Experimental Therapeutics, is focusing her research on the liver metabolism and toxicity of the cannabis constituent cannabidiol (also known as CBD). Beers is mentored by Klarissa Jackson, Ph.D.

“CBD is a popular ingredient in many consumer products and was recently approved by the FDA to treat rare and severe forms of epilepsy in children. During clinical trials, CBD was found to cause dose-dependent liver toxicity through an unknown mechanism. I hypothesize that the toxicity associated with CBD may be due to its metabolism in the liver,” Beers said.

Beers currently works with human liver cells and liver tissue fractions to study CBD metabolism and drug-drug interactions, as well as to measure markers of toxicity that may be associated with CBD exposure. Her goal is to improve patient and consumer safety by uncovering the causes and risk factors for CBD-induced liver injury so it may be predicted and prevented based on patient-specific characteristics.

“Jessica is doing excellent work in this area to better understand the mechanisms of CBD-induced liver injury and to identify risk factors for the toxicity. Based on clinical trials, the incidence of CBD associated liver injury is significantly higher when CBD is taken with valproic acid, another antiepileptic drug that is known to cause liver injury in some patients. There appears to be a synergistic effect between the two drugs, and we want to understand why. Jessica’s research is important to address this issue. The AFPE fellowship highlights Jessica’s outstanding research accomplishments and the importance of her ongoing work. The knowledge gained from her studies has the potential to improve patient safety, particularly in epilepsy treatment,” Jackson said.

About the future, Beers said, “I want to improve drug safety in my career by helping scientists navigate safety-related concerns during clinical drug development at the Food and Drug Administration.”

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