Three UCT researchers have made a breakthrough in biochemistry with their discovery of an enzyme, which may assist with manufacturing better medicines. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency
Three UCT researchers have made a breakthrough in biochemistry with their discovery of an enzyme, which may assist with manufacturing better medicines. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency

Three UCT biochemistry researchers able to make new enzymes

By Staff Reporter Time of article published Mar 4, 2020

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Cape Town - Three UCT researchers have made a breakthrough in biochemistry with their discovery of an enzyme, at close to atomic resolution, which may assist with manufacturing better medicines or even cleaning up pollution.

Jeremy Woodward, Andani Mulelu and Angela Kirykowicz studied the structure of a group of enzymes called nitrilases, which carries a range of biotechnological potential.

A technique called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) was used to determine the structure of biological molecules and helped produce the first high-resolution visualisation of a cryo-EM protein structure in Africa.

Mulelu, research scientist at the H3D Drug Discovery and Development Centre at UCT, said: “We’re not just following nature. We are being inspired by it and altering what it can do. We are able to produce brand new enzymes.

Woodward, principal investigator in UCT’s Structural Biology Research Unit, said: “We found it really exciting to be able to open up the mechanism of this biological machine and understand it. Enzymes produce all the chemicals in plants and animals that allow them to survive. They are the chemical factories of the cell.”

The researchers believe that using nitrilases to make pharmaceuticals could change the way drug resistance is approached in countries within Africa and in other developing countries.

Mulelu said: “The synthesis of chemicals using these enzymes could improve the drug discovery platform in Africa.”

Woodward added: “Once you have hits you can optimise nitrilases for manufacturing of medicines.”

The nitrilase’s binding pocket where other molecules are converted by the enzyme. Photo: Jeremy Woodward.
UCT researchers Andani Mulelu and Jeremy Woodward who, with Angela Kirykowicz, found an enzyme that could assist with manufacturing better medicines or cleaning up pollution. Picture: Supplied

He noted that one of the crucial points was that drugs were not discovered or manufactured on the African continent, and he called for creating our own solutions in this field.

“It’s not optimal to have generic solutions. We are great consumers of drugs, but the profits go elsewhere. We have a vision for Africa where drugs are discovered, manufactured and used here and are tailor-made to African populations and problems.”

Nitrilases have other uses too, including offering green technology solutions such as breaking down toxic industrial effluent and cyanide.

“We have demonstrated we are a world-class institution. We want UCT to be world class, and this is world-class work. It’s a world first, which people have been trying to achieve for a long time.”

Read more about their research here: https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2020-02-28-biochemistry-breakthrough-for-uct-researchers

Cape Argus

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