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Cataloging Compounds

June 17, 2009

By: Jackie Inouye

One might say Dr. Mary Lynn Trawick is a librarian. Although she spends more time in the laboratory than in the stacks, the associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry is researching and cataloging a wealth of knowledge on enzymes and compounds. Some of them may lead to new breakthroughs in the treatment of pervasive disease and opportunities for valuable collaborations with industrial partners in the health care sector of the economy.

Trawick received funds from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research to test an enzyme called cruzain, a crucial element in the lifecycle of the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi. In humans, this parasite can cause Chagas Disease, the leading cause of heart disease in Latin America, according to Trawick. The parasite is transmitted to humans by the bite of the blood-sucking triatoma, commonly known as the kissing bug. It is estimated about 20 million people world-wide are infected - 500,000 in the United States - and about 50,000 world-wide die from it each year. The University of California, San Francisco, a collaborator in the project, provided the enzyme for Trawick and her team of professors and students to work with.

Trawick began by evaluating a number of compounds against cruzain. "Our focus was to see if we could design, synthesize and evaluate compounds as inhibitors of this enzyme to block its action and thereby be useful therapeutic agents for treatment," she says. "The other important thing is that this type of enzyme is found in a lot of organisms, in almost all living things, so it gives us insight into applications in other areas."

Five Baylor-detected compounds were sent to The University of California, San Francisco for further testing. "Of those five, one of them appears to be very effective at inhibiting cells that have been directly infected with the parasite," Trawick says.

She also discovered that two of the compounds that are cruzain inhibitors restrict another enzyme called cathepsin L. Some types of cancers are associated with high levels of cathepsin L, so any therapy that might be developed as a result of this study also could have implications for cancer research, she says.

The next step in Trawick's research is to continue testing the small library of compounds to see what other enzymes they may be active against. She and her team have already published one professional article and are in the process of publishing two more.

Because the funding afforded her two full-time graduate students and other undergraduates in the lab, the project has more than just biomedical benefits; students are getting real-world experience. In fact, the idea for the study originated with former graduate student Rogelio Siles, who is from Bolivia and was interested in researching Chagas Disease.

Siles and several other graduate students have presented their findings at professional conferences. "[Presenting at conferences] provides a tremendous opportunity for students to meet people and make contacts," Trawick says. In addition to valuable molecular modeling and evaluation work from former and current graduate students, a number of undergraduates are involved in purifying cruzain in the lab so that the team can do more testing.

Kevin Pinney, a professor of chemistry and a partner in the project, says the research has had professional benefits. "No one person can have the expertise in all areas," he says. "If you can find ways to combine [efforts] that are useful, you have added strength and can move a research agenda along." As a researcher specializing in cancer studies, he is looking forward to furthering the work started on cathepsin L and its possible inhibitors.