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

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 pl

Contact: Ann Higgins
American Chemical Society

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