Fighting the deadly duo

The University of KwaZulu-Natal is home to a research project that is gaining steady ground in battling one of the world’s most deadly duos — the fatal combination of HIV/Aids and the extremely drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis (XDR-TB).

Studies in early 2005 on patients who had died unusually quickly after being infected with HIV/Aids revealed a new strain of TB that did not respond to any of the traditional first-or second-line treatments.

‘The mortality rate of HIV-positive patients infected with XDR-TB is extremely high,” says Dr Thavi Govender of the UKZN’s school of pharmacy. ‘XDR-TB has evolved as a result of infected people not completing their TB treatments, which causes the TB virus to mutate instead of being destroyed.”

Govender says this occurs in areas where patients may not be aware that they are ill with the disease, or are not aware of the importance of completing the first line of medication.

Now Govender is working with colleagues Gert Kruger and Glenn Maguire from the school of chemistry and Patrick Govender from the school of biochemistry as part of a special research team investigating the synthesis and testing of inhibitors targeting HIV/Aids, XDR-TB, type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer, among other dread diseases.

The research team, working in partnership with Thrip and Aspen Pharmacare, has already found two promising new classes of protease inhibitors. Govender and his team are extremely excited about the quick success their research has yielded.

‘In the two-and-a-half years we have worked on this project, we have taken it to levels beyond what we could have dreamed. If we’d achieved only a fraction of these results, we would have been ecstatic. We are certainly approaching a breakthrough,” he says.

In the meantime, although the team’s research continues to make huge strides in producing an effective anti XDR-TB drug, the fight against the disease continues. ‘We have designed, synthesised, evaluated and identified a class of lead compounds with potent activity against the XDR-TB strains of TB,” says Govender.

‘Several of these compounds are already at the animal testing stage and the group has now shifted its attention to synthesising and testing antimicrobial peptides against the XDR-TB strains.”

Govender is particularly full of praise for the students, all of whom have been trained in the latest techniques and are being supervised by international collaborators. ‘They are dedicated and motivated,” he says.

‘This research team offers postgraduate students a unique opportunity in that it trains medicinal chemists — people who understand both chemistry and biology. Our students design molecules by computational chemistry, synthesise them and then evaluate the biological efficacy. These skills are in international demand and we are one of the few groups in the world to teach them,” he says. — Mail & Guardian reporter

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