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DUT: Study to help design drugs to treat life threatening diseases

DUT: Study to help design drugs to treat life threatening diseases

Media statement by Nomonde Mbadi, Executive Director of Corporate Affairs

Durban scientist Paul Mokoena is currently conducting a study looking at the “Use of computational methods in protein folding studies.” The study aims to apply novel computational techniques to combat emerging diseases whose root causes are located at protein level.

The purpose of this study is to use computational simulation techniques to study proteins at atomic level so as to obtain detailed information about their structure and mechanisms of action. This helps in designing pharmaceutical compounds that could be used for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases caused by protein misfolding. This is called computer-aided drug design.

Mokoena, lecturer of Biochemistry at the Durban University of Technology in the department of Biotechnology & Food Technology, is undertaking this groundbreaking study towards his doctorate degree in this field. “Proteins are important biological molecules that form part of all living organisms. Other proteins have specialized functions such as co-ordinating the nervous and the immune systems. These proteins (hormones) need to be folded in a precise manner to be able to function optimally. Unfortunately, there is now an increase in diseases caused by protein folding disorders. If the body cannot correct misfolded proteins they may produce clumps or aggregates, resulting in disease conditions like cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s, mad cow disease and cancer,” says Mokoena.

He believes the production of diagnostic tools that can detect protein malfunctions at earliest stages of development could mean that diagnosis and treatment is given in time to patients, and that this will go a long way in prolonging the lifespan and ensuring a better state of health for individuals. He is confident that by using computational techniques facilitated by connecting to one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, he is able to obtain protein structural information with high accuracy and clarity without resorting to expensive lab instruments. He adds that this technique provides vital functional details not detected by conventional physical tools like spectroscopy due the dynamic nature of proteins.

Together with his supervisor Prof K Bisetty from Department of Chemistry at DUT, he has research collaboration with the Laboratory of Molecular Engineering in Barcelona, Spain. Through funding from NRF and DUT, Mokoena visited this laboratory to share insights on protein biochemistry and to learn new techniques on protein computer modeling. He intends to import these technologies to be used in Computational Chemistry and Structural Bioinformatics laboratory at DUT in order to study proteins with potential pharmaceutical applications. In conclusion, Mokoena says there is still more research work to be carried out, hence creating opportunities for postgraduate students in this interesting field.

For more information please contact Paul Mokoena on 031 373 5328/083 9977 478.