UTSA student Lynee Massey works at her hood.
UTSA chemistry student Lynée Massey works at her station as she experiments with developing crucial medications for those suffering from mental illness. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Lynée Massey arrived at the University of Texas at San Antonio with a mission: She wanted to improve medication options for people struggling with mental illness.

For four years, Massey spent long hours in the UTSA chemistry lab working to create a new class of chemical compounds called heterocycles, common fragments of the vast majority of marketed pharmaceutical drugs, including antibiotics and those used to fight cancer. Her intention was to modify and expand ways to engineer pharmaceutical medication.

“Developing new methods to create heterocycles is crucial to drug development. The more efficient the method, the less expensive and more available the drug is,” Massey said, noting that the molecular structure is found in the vast majority of drugs approved by the Federal Drug Administration.

To build on this work, the National Science Foundation awarded Massey a prestigious $138,000 grant that will fund research looking into psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and their potential to be used as antidepressants and to regrow brain cells by testing the molecules known as tryptamines. She also will work on the development of a vaccine for methamphetamine, which would prevent drug users from getting high when using the drug.

Her late father was the inspiration behind choosing to major in chemistry. He struggled with symptoms of bipolar disorder and often would tell stories about how antidepressant medications helped him get through some of the most difficult moments of his life.

“He told me the symptoms often left him super depressed to the point where he couldn’t talk or eat, but that when he took [antidepressants] everything was fine. It fixed him right up,” Massey said. “I thought it was really inspiring that a simple tiny molecule could change someone’s life that drastically, and I said to myself, ‘I want to do that. I want to make those things.’”

Her desire to achieve this goal became stronger when her father committed suicide just days before final exams at the end of her sophomore year. “He had his symptoms controlled my whole life, but he became depressed and nothing was helping. This happens to a lot of people. Medication just stops working for people a lot of the time, so developing new ones is crucial for public health.”

Massey graduated in May with a degree in Chemistry from UTSA, where she co-authored three scientific research papers. In one, she is credited as being a key player in the discovery and optimization of a process that creates heterocycles – a foundational molecular structure found in most pharmaceutical drugs.

Chemistry lab at UTSA
Lynée Massey’s chemistry station at UTSA. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Massey’s mentor, UTSA chemistry professor Michael Doyle, told the Rivard Report that her achievements at such a young age (22) are “incredibly rare.”

“In the last 25 years, [Massey] will have had more publications than any other student that has worked in my lab, and is one of only four to have been first author on a publication,” Doyle said. “Her achievements are and will continue to be recognized on a national and international level.”

Massey is one of only 70 chemistry students in the United States to receive a grant out of the 2,000 awarded in all fields of science.

“Depressed people have a decay in their connections in the brain. If you can get a drug that can help grow them back, that would be ideal,” Massey said. “My plan is to synthesize a class of DMT and test them, stick them in cells, and see how well it helps them to regrow.”

Doyle said what is special about Massey’s fellowship award is that she is competing with graduate and undergraduate students in science from across the U.S., and winning one is something reserved for “the best of the best.”

“These sorts of awards are the great equalizer in science,” Doyle said. “There are people from Harvard, Stanford, and Yale winning these awards and those are the people she is competing with. There is no one saying ‘We feel sorry for you because you come from UTSA,’ that’s not how it’s awarded. These are the very best people, who once recognized, can go anywhere and do anything they want. And I am so proud of her for that.”

Massey will continue her research at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, where she will also complete the requirements necessary to obtain her Ph.D. in chemical biology.

“The work [Massey] has done is already being tested at the UTSA Office of Commercialization and Innovation. She’s incredibly humble, despite being so talented, and is destined to be an exceptional research scientist and improve lives along the way, Doyle said.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.