Discovering new drugs in Panama
August 13, 2012
Carmenza Spadafora, whose pedigree includes a PhD from the Instituto de Parasitología y Biomedicina López-Neyra in Spain and a major grant from the Bill Gates Foundation to develop a microwave-based treatment for malaria
Carmenza Spadafora, whose pedigree includes a PhD from the Instituto de Parasitología y Biomedicina López-Neyra in Spain and a major grant from the Bill Gates Foundation to develop a microwave-based treatment for malaria, has created something impressive from almost nothing. Her lab, a wide-open space intentionally designed this way because she likes people to interact, screens about 40 chemical compounds every week for their ability to kill cancer cells and a host of tropical disease agents including leishmaniasis, Trypanosoma cruzi (the cause of Chagas disease) and dengue.
The compounds she tests are extracted from plants, microorganisms, and even from fungi found in sloth fur and are purified by Marcelino Gutierrez’s research group. A whiff of alcohol floats up from freshly sterilized white counters in labs housing Panama’s biggest Nuclear Magnetic Resonance
Imaging machine and the HPLC gas chromatograph needed to tease apart the chemical structure of potential pharmaceutical compounds.
Both labs form part of the youngest, most vigorously growing research institution in Panama today, the Instituto de Investigaciones Cientificas y Servicios de Alta Technologia or INDICASAT. Founded in 2002 in buildings that until the mid ‘90’s were part of the U.S. Army Southern Command headquarters and it is now directed by Jagannatha Rao. Oris Sanjur represents STRI on the INDICASAT board of directors.
Spadafora points out that some of her equipment still has tags that say ‘property of the Smithsonian Institution.’ These hark back to the ICBG, an international drug discovery program founded through efforts of STRI research associates Lissy Coley and Tom Kursar and established firmly as an institution to train young researchers and contribute to conservation of Panama’s abundant biodiversity with Todd Capson’s help. In many ways INDICASAT began as an intellectual ‘child’ of that program. Faces around the labs are familiar too: Javier Ballesteros, Catherina Caballero-George, Omar Lopez and others who began their careers as field assistants on Barro Colorado or in Tupper Center labs.
ICBG botanist Alicia Ibanez still works in labs on the fourth floor of STRI’s Tupper Center, cataloging plant collections from Coiba, and now from the far reaches of Cocle and Bocas del Toro provinces, where little systematic botanical exploration has ever taken place before.
Participation in INDICASAT research not only gives local researchers a hand up, it also enhances the CV’s of PhD students from the U.S., setting them apart as they seek employment in a tight job market. Spadfora mentions Marcy Balunas and Kevin Tidgewell, recent post-doctoral fellows, who have scored jobs at the University of Connecticut and Duquesne University.
Funding for ICBG (director, William Gerwick), now a model for drug discovery around the world, comes from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation which has already been renewed three times, runs out in May 2013. But the future remains bright for INDICASAT. Questions beget more questions, and learning continues to be a growth industry in Panama.
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