By Murilo Bomfim
In the jungle of biodiversity, scientists are looking for compounds that match diseases
Regardless of where you live, it is quite possible that there is at least one pharmacy near your home. Brazil is one of the countries with the most drugstores in the world: according to the IQVIA consultancy, we have one for every 2,700 inhabitants. In Argentina, a pharmacy serves 3,200 people; in India, 2 million.
However, in addition to being a champion of everyday drugstores, Brazil stands out in the item “pharmacies of the future”: from the immense and unknown biodiversity of its flora, molecules can be extracted for the formulation of new medicines. But, unlike the establishment on the corner, biodiversity does not have a password or a counter attendant – digging for molecules, present in any biome, is a more complex task.
Daniela Trivella is one of the scientists who dive into nature looking for compounds with pharmacological activity. In her daily life, she hunts molecules in samples collected in places as different as the Amazon or the sea floor, for example, where a decomposing whale carcass was found, with potential compounds, at about 4,000 meters deep.
Graduated in biology, the researcher has a master’s degree in biotechnology, a doctorate in biomolecular physics and post-docs in chemistry and pharmacology. Such a diversified academic trajectory enabled him to develop techniques aimed at the interaction of proteins and bioactive compounds, with a view to new drugs. It is common for proteins to be involved in disease mechanisms; some antidepressants, for example, act on proteins to increase concentrations of the hormone norepinephrine. For an active compound to interact with a protein, there needs to be a match, a fit between them. And this fit depends on the shape and the atoms present in the compound: it is this conformation that can stimulate or inhibit protein activity.
Trivella coordinates a team at the National Biosciences Laboratory (LNBio), in Campinas, where samples of plants and bacteria collected by specialized partners who venture into the most different corners of the country are sent – which guarantees diversity in the library of natural products that LNBio has been assembling, currently with 6 thousand registered samples. The point is that each sample contains several bioactive compounds, only a few of which are relevant to inspire new drugs. How, then, to identify the specific compound that interacts with a particular protein?
Researchers use two techniques. One is protein crystallography, which works like fishing: the protein (in crystal form) is the bait, and the sample to be tested is the sea. When the sample compound binds to the protein, both form a complex that is later analyzed by Sirius, the particle accelerator inaugurated in Campinas in 2018. At the end of the process, there is the three-dimensional structure of the protein with the compound connected .
The strategy is complemented by mass spectrometry, which provides what would be the fingerprint of the compound, and from which it is possible to know the atoms that make up the bioactive molecule. Armed with the information obtained by both techniques, the team crosses data and identifies the molecule in question, which can give rise to the long-awaited medications.
These crossovers, however, take time and are subject to errors and frustrations – the molecule may already be known or even irrelevant to the production of a drug. To speed up the process, Trivella is now dedicated to building a computer interface that takes care of these intersections. It’s like the Tinder of medications: the information is entered and the program points out who matches whom and which couples will be most fruitful.
To develop the idea, the team, made up of chemists, pharmacists and biologists, also has a computer scientist and a mathematician. This diversity of knowledge is essential to unite high technology and Brazilian biodiversity. If all goes well, new drugs will hit the market. Pharmacies will not be lacking.
Murilo Bomfim is a journalist.
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