Dr. Jennifer Herrmann is a senior research scientist at the Helmholtz Institute for Pharmaceutical Research Saarland. Her current research focuses on characterizing new natural products — compounds found in nature — with antibacterial properties, studying their mechanisms of action and potential for use as pharmaceutical drugs. She recently co-authored a JoVE video article on the use of Metabolic Profiling to Determine Bactericidal or Bacteriostatic Effects of New Natural Products using Isothermal Microcalorimetry.
Ahead of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11th, we spoke with Dr. Herrmann about her work, how she became interested in natural product drug discovery, which developments in the field excite her most, and her advice for aspiring pharmaceutical research scientists.
What are you currently working on?
Dr. Jennifer Herrmann: “I am currently working on several antibacterial natural product classes. During the initial phase of such projects, we try to understand which types of bacteria can be killed by the natural product antibiotics, and we put a special emphasis on screening of life-threatening pathogens that are often multidrug-resistant.
In the last years, numerous campaigns and reporting in the media contributed to an increased public awareness of antimicrobial resistance. The emergence of resistant human pathogens limits the current treatment options and a simple infection can become deadly because none of the available antibiotics is active against the causative pathogen. Thus, new antibiotic drugs are urgently needed. Natural products can often “break” resistance because they address new targets through new mechanisms of action.
My work is focused on elucidating these new mechanisms and to ready natural products for their preclinical development. These studies include many different types of experiments since we are not only studying antibacterial effects but we also explore other pharmaceutical properties and we carefully evaluate potential toxicity risks.”
How did you first become interested in natural product drug discovery?
Dr. Jennifer Herrmann: “During my studies of chemistry, I worked as an ERASMUS intern on the total synthesis of a plant-derived natural product. I was fascinated by the complex chemistry of natural products but I also got interested in the diverse biological activities that these compounds exert. Before moving to Saarland University and starting my PhD studies, I had the opportunity to deepen my knowledge on biological screening of small molecules and natural products as an intern at Bayer CropScience and as a visiting scholar at Drug Discovery Ltd. in Glasgow, Scotland.
After these work experiences, I was fully convinced to move into the field of natural product drug discovery and I applied for a PhD position in the group of Rolf Müller, who is one of the world- leading experts in this field.”
What developments in this field are most exciting to you right now, and why?
Dr. Jennifer Herrmann: “Technology is improving in all fields of natural product research and such new technologies are accelerating the development of new compounds into clinically used drugs. For me, it is most fascinating to see how the discovery part is improving, which includes the advancement of novel techniques in the fields of microbiology and analytics.
My main research focus is the elucidation of antibacterial targets of newly discovered natural products. This task can be quite complex but it is great to see that mode-of-action studies benefit a lot from recent technical developments. The tools that are now widely accessible range from genetic tools, newly developed research reagents, and omics technology to new instrumentation enabling researchers to develop a detailed understanding of antibiotic-induced cellular responses in a reasonable timeframe.”
What are some of your most memorable moments in your work as a scientist?
Dr. Jennifer Herrmann: “A memorable moment in the career of many scientists is for sure the completion of their doctoral thesis — this also applies to myself. There are many other moments, which I keep in good memories, so it is hard to name specific examples. I always enjoy connecting with other scientists and people that encourage you to think out of the box. I had many good discussions that were memorable and that eventually helped to improve my work.”
What advice would you give to early career scientists interested in natural product research, or pharmaceutical research more generally?
Dr. Jennifer Herrmann: “Go for it!
You can start your career in natural product research and pharmaceutical sciences in many different ways, as it is a highly multidisciplinary field. I would consider it as most important to first identify one’s own interests and then decide on a suitable field of study, which can be for example in the area of biology, chemistry, pharmacy or bioengineering. As in every professional career, it is important to build on personal strengths and interests to be successful. Once having started to work as a scientist, it is important to stay passionate about what you do, to develop new skills, and to grow with new challenges.”