U.S., Mexican scientific societies honor former Penn State professor

September 30, 1999



Research on steroid hormones cited as international landmark


Chemistry societies in the U.S. and Mexico join forces this month to honor a former Penn State professor for his landmark work to develop a cheaper way to mass produce the hormone progesterone. The work later led to the wide availability of such products as oral contraceptives and cortisone, a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.

The American Chemical Society and the Mexican Chemical Society will designate the steroid work of Russell E. Marker and the development of the Mexican steroid industry as an International Historic Chemical Landmark. A plaque honoring this work will be presented October 1 at Penn State University's Pond Laboratory, where Marker taught and conducted his steroid research from 1934-1943.

Russell Marker's work and the proliferation of the Mexican steroid hormone industry drastically reduced the cost of progesterone, which helped make it more widely available. By the 1950s, over half of the sex hormones sold in the United States were produced in Mexico, and could be traced to synthetic techniques devised by Marker.

Another result of Russell Marker's work and the Mexican steroid industry was the development of the first oral contraceptive. Using some of Marker's methods, Carl Djerassi developed "the pill" in 1951 at Syntex, S.A. in Mexico.

In 1938, Marker proposed a new molecular structure of the plant steroid sarsasapogenin, isolated from sarsparilla. Marker manipulated this new structure using a chemical reaction sequence known as "degradation," to yield progesterone. This process of producing progesterone is now known as the Marker Degradation. Sarsasapogenin, however, was still an expensive starting material.

Marker embarked on an extensive search for a cheaper starting material that eventually led him to the Mexican state of Veracruz near Orizaba, home of a plant called cabeza de negro. Cabeza de negro is a member of a family of plants, Dioscorea, known to have a structure similar to progesterone; its root can weigh up to 100 kilos (about 220 pounds).

Marker traveled to Mexico and returned to Penn State with a 50-pound root of cabeza de negro. From this he isolated a cheap starting material for producing progesterone. Unable to persuade anyone that this venture could be a commercial success, Marker decided to undertake the project on his own. He returned to Mexico to gather more cabeza de negro root and proceeded to produce three kilos (6 1/2 pounds) of progesterone-at the time, the largest lot ever produced.

In 1944, Marker teamed with two entrepreneurs in Mexico, Emiric Somlo and Federico Lehmann, to found Syntex, S.A. Marker stayed with the company for a little over a year before he left and founded Botanica-mex, which improved upon production methods and competed in the steroid market.

Syntex established a formidable research program, and ultimately produced testosterone, the first oral contraceptive, and cortisone, a steroid used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Russell Marker dropped out of public life in the 1950s, but re-emerged to accept awards from the Mexican Chemical Society in 1969 and the Chemical Congress of North America in 1975, among others. He created an endowed professorship and several endowed lecture series at The Pennsylvania State University and the University of Maryland before his death in 1995.

Plaques will also be presented in Monterrey, Mexico, on October 18 and Mexico City on December 2.
-end-
A nonprofit organization with a membership of nearly 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy, and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. ( http://www.acs.org )

American Chemical Society

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