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Former Royal Receives Prestigious Chemistry Award for Antimalarial Drugs

Jonathan Vennerstrom, who received the 2019 American Chemical Society Award for Creative Invention, credits the late Professor of Chemistry Dale Stephens for helping him appreciate the beauty of God’s creation and the beauty of chemistry.

By Jason Schoonover, content specialist ’09

September 10, 2019 | 9:30 a.m.

Jonathan Vennerstrom

After receiving the 2019 American Chemical Society Award for Creative Invention, Jonathan Vennerstrom is continuing work to develop antimalarial drugs, and he is developing a drug to address schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia.

When Jonathan Vennerstrom returned to Bethel University in 2010, he told students and alumni in the Department of Chemistry that their field is a broad one that opens many doors for helping others. “It gives you a lot of opportunities to make the world a better place—like we’re called to do,” he says.

Vennerstrom calls his own story a small example. But this is modest for the recipient of the 2019 American Chemical Society Award for Creative Invention. Vennerstrom, who attended Bethel his freshman and sophomore years, received the prestigious award for his contributions to the development of two antimalarial drugs. Vennerstrom and his team’s contributions could have wide-reaching effects.

The inspiration for Vennerstrom’s work traces to his childhood. Vennerstrom spent eight years in Ethiopia, where his parents served as missionaries. There, he witnessed the effects of malaria and other diseases that are largely eradicated in the U.S. and Europe. “When you grow up in Africa, you’re aware of the neglected diseases that are not frequently discussed in the U.S.,” he says.

When his parents returned to Arden Hills, Minnesota, Vennerstrom attended Bethel for two years. He credits the late Professor of Chemistry Dale Stephens for an enthusiasm that helped him appreciate the beauty of God’s creation and the beauty of chemistry. “That was a defining experience, to have that opportunity to take a chemistry course from Dr. Stephens,” he says.

I give all the credit to the Lord for bringing these opportunities and putting the right people in my path who have made the work possible.

— Jonathan Vennerstrom, a former Bethel student and professor of pharmaceutical science at the University of Nebraska Medical Center

After graduate school, Vennerstrom completed a post-doc at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, where the Army was interested in diseases encountered by soldiers, like malaria. Today, Vennerstrom is a professor of pharmaceutical science at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. His work has received support through the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), a public-private partnership supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations. The venture helps make medicines more available, with eradication as the eventual goal. Contributions from groups like the Gates Foundation are important because it reduces pharmaceutical companies’ financial risk.

Vennerstrom and his team first developed OZ277, an antimalarial drug produced in India by Ranbaxy Laboratories, which has since merged with Sun Pharmaceutical Industries. A follow-up drug, OZ439, is currently in clinical trials. If successful, the single-dose antimalarial drug could help the roughly 219 million people that the World Health Organization estimates are affected by malaria.

Vennerstrom is also working on a drug to address schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia, a disease caused by infection from freshwater parasitic worms that can affect the liver, bladder, and other organs. “We’re excited about our data, but again, now it’s a matter of finding a pharmaceutical company to take it forward,” he says.

Vennerstrom is quick to credit his team for their success. “I was blessed with many wonderful collaborators,” he says. “It’s really a team effort.” He says the Lord has connected him with the right people. “I give all the credit to the Lord for bringing these opportunities and putting the right people in my path who have made the work possible,” he says.

For those seeking to glorify God with their profession, Vennerstrom recommends considering chemistry or the sciences. “Our time on earth is an opportunity to bring glory to God,” he says.

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