Doctor of physics studies bacterial capsular polysaccharides through NMR spectroscopy Meet Hugo Azurmendi

Hugo Azurmendi

Hugo Azurmendi, Ph.D. in physics, analyzed bacterial capsular polysaccharides on cells using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy over the course of 2 years as a fellow in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, Research Participation Program. (Credit: Hugo Azurmendi)

As a former participant in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) Research Participation Program, Hugo Azurmendi, Ph.D. in physics, used this opportunity to set the foundation for his career. The experience he gained through researching scientific and technical problems related to vaccine development and characterization set his future as an established scientist within the FDA.

The CBER Program at the FDA provides temporary scientific training for participants having a background or interest in medical, biological, chemical, toxicological, mathematical/statistical or other related sciences. Managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Research Participation Program, this program is an educational and training program designed to provide college students, recent graduates and university faculty opportunities to connect with the unique resources of the FDA.

After earning his doctorate in physics from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba in Argentina, Azurmendi began studying biomolecules through the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) after earning his doctorate in physics from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba in Argentina. His research interests involving NMR motivated him as a post-graduate to pursue a career in an academic, private or governmental setting.

Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy is an analytical chemistry technique used in quality control and research for determining the content and purity of a sample, as well as its molecular structure.

This interest led him to become a fellow in the FDA CBER program in July of 2005 where he spent the next 2 years within the Laboratory of Bacterial Polysaccharides studying bacterial capsular polysaccharides using NMR.

“I was looking for a postdoctoral position in my field of interest, NMR of biomolecules,” Azurmendi said. “At the time I was still unsure on what career to pursue in the future, so I thought this opportunity would give me a chance to learn about a well-regarded scientific government agency.”

Under the mentorship of Dr. Darón Freedberg, senior scientist and chemist within the Laboratory of Bacterial Polysaccharides, Azurmendi helped develop a technique to study bacterial capsular polysaccharides on cells through the use of NMR. Capsular polysaccharides are used as antigens in vaccines to target disease pathogens like meningococcus, a bacterium that can cause diseases such as meningitis. 

“Normally, capsular polysaccharides are isolated before being studied, but I was able to demonstrate that it was possible to perform NMR studies on polysaccharides on cell by selective isotopic enrichment of the polysaccharides,” he said.

Azurmendi’s research focused on verifying the integrity of the polysaccharides after purification or when conjugated with a protein to produce a vaccine by comparison. His efforts helped to develop techniques that would allow them to study polysaccharides protecting pathogens in situ. 

The experience he gained at CBER was critical for his next career step as NMR lab manager at the Department of Chemistry at Virginia Tech where he was able to continue his research with Dr. Freedberg. This experience brought Azurmendi full circle when he was able to reapply at FDA.

“Five years after departing, Dr. Freedberg had an opening in his lab and told me I could apply,” he said. “Thus, in 2012 I returned to FDA, now with a permanent position as the lab manager within Freedberg’s lab, and I currently conduct research related to polysaccharide vaccines by NMR and computation.”

As lab manager, Azurmendi also helped Dr. Freedberg to design their current lab space at White Oak in Silver Spring, MD, where they moved in 2014.

“In addition, I designed and maintain the helium recovery system that provides about 90% of our needs of liquid helium for the three NMR magnets we host, saving the FDA tens of thousands of dollars annually,” he said. “I also do regulatory work related to vaccines.” 

During his fellowship appointment at CBER, Azurmendi was able to publish his research in 2007 alongside other established scientists in the scholarly journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

He has since published his research in other scholarly journals like Glycobiology and Scientific Reports, and was the recipient of the Health and Human Services Green Champion, Individual Award for Sustainable Acquisition of Helium Recovery Systems in 2016.

Azurmendi had some parting guidance for those interested in federal research opportunities. “Federal research facilities provide a great environment for learning and developing skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields,” he said. “The variety of research and related activities performed offer a great chance for discovery in both science and work opportunities through networking with scientists. Interacting and communicating with the people around you will open up new opportunities and ideas for development, so don’t be shy and you’ll be rewarded.”

The CBER Research Participation Training Program is administered through ORISE under an agreement between the FDA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.