Alexandros Makriyannis, the founding director of Northeastern’s Center for Drug Discovery, has received the annual Award in Medicinal Chemistry from the American Chemical Society. Makriyannis, whose award propelled him into the society’s Hall of Fame alongside other pioneers of medicinal chemistry, will address his colleagues at the 33rd National Medicinal Chemistry Symposium in Tucson in May.

“It’s a prestigious award and I’m very happy to get it,” said Makriyannis, the George D. Behrakis Chair in Pharmaceutical Biotechnology who holds joint appointments in the College of Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

The Reaction Times, a monthly newsletter for the chemical society, called Makriyannis a “very inventive and highly prolific” researcher, whose 40-year career began with inventing methods for the discovery of new medications and over the past 25 years has been developing medicines based on the cannabinoids, the compounds found in cannabis.

“Cannabis is a plant that societies have used for therapeutic purposes for over two millennia,” Makriyannis said.  But despite its long history, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that scientists began to understand how cannabinoids work. Through their research, Makriyannis and his colleagues unexpectedly discovered an entire, previously unknown physiological system in the human body that is serendipitously responsive to the plant compounds.

“The endocannabinoid system is a whole intricate network of biochemical effects,” Makriyannis explained, noting that plant-produced cannabinoids mimic the behavior of endocannabinoids and give the system its name. “It includes two receptors and a variety of enzymes and has its own endogenously produced molecules, the endocannabinoids, that control its function.”

One of its key roles is to maintain homeostasis in the body, thereby implicating a variety of disease areas. Makriyannis has spent the latter half of his career exploring its effects on neuropathic pain, metabolic disorders and neurodegenerative diseases, each of which modulate the endocannabinoid system, but in very different ways.
In the case of obesity and related metabolic disorders, for example, the system is hyperactive. Makriyannis and his team have created a weight-loss drug candidate that stabilizes the system without the side effects of standard therapies.

Makriyannis’ work with the endocannabinoid system is but one area of research supported by the Center for Drug Discovery. The interdisciplinary team of more than 50 PhD Students, post-doctoral researchers and senior faculty members is dedicated to the discovery of novel medications and to the development of approaches and technologies aimed at improving the discovery of new therapeutic drugs.

Makriyannis founded the Center, which aligns with Northeastern’s focus on use-inspired research that solves global challenges in health, security and sustainability, in 1997 at the University of Connecticut and brought it with him to Northeastern when he joined the faculty in 2005.