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Professor Ravi Acharya
Professor Ravi Acharya is collaborating with the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University on a project to find new drugs to treat TB

Internal News - 11 December 2008

Biology & Biochemistry to develop new drugs to treat TB

Professor Ravi Acharya from the Department of Biology & Biochemistry, will collaborate with Dr Anwar Jardine from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and scientists from Stellenbosch University in South Africa on a project to develop new drugs against tuberculosis (TB).

Dr Anwar Jardine at UCT received a Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the project.

Dr Jardine’s project is one of 105 grants announced by the Gates Foundation for the first funding round of Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative to help scientists around the world explore bold, new solutions for health challenges in developing countries. To receive funding, investigators submitted a two-page application on how their idea falls outside current scientific paradigms and could lead to significant advances in global health if successful.

The researchers will be investigating a new potential drug target for TB, a disease which is caused by a type of bacteria that infects the lungs. Despite an extensive vaccination programme, the disease is on the rise in the UK. Worldwide, one person is infected every second and it is estimated that the disease kills more than 1.5 million people per year.

Professor Acharya explained: “TB develops resistance against drugs very quickly, so a major aim of this project is to target essential processes in the organism to limit its ability to develop resistance.”

Chemists in Stellenbosch will be making a range of potential drugs that potentially block the action of an enzyme that protects the TB microbe against damage from free radical chemicals. Humans use a different protective mechanism to defend their cells from these toxins, so drugs targeting the TB enzyme will selectively weaken the TB cells without causing side effects to the patient.

Dr Anwar Jardine from UCT will be leading the project. His team will test the potential drugs for activity against the enzyme and study the enzyme for weaknesses that can be exploited by the scientists to increase the effectiveness of the new drugs.

Professor Acharya's team will study the 3D structure of the TB enzyme to help the design a drug that is the correct shape to fit snugly onto the enzyme and inhibit its action. They will use a robot to set up thousands of experiments to find the structure of the TB enzyme, and then do further experiments to get structures of the enzyme with a potential drug molecule bound to it.

Professor Acharya said: “We’re really excited to be involved in this international collaboration with our colleagues in South Africa. Schemes for funding for feasibility studies like this are really important to get innovative research projects off the ground. We’re hoping that this will develop into a major collaboration in the future.”