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Chemistry Students Search for New Medicines for Third World Countries

You get sick. What do you do? You go to the doctor. He or she writes you a prescription. You go down to your nearest pharmacy and present your prescription. The pharmacist fills your prescription. If you’re lucky you have insurance that allows you to pay maybe $25. You take your prescription home. You take the medication as directed. You get well.

Getting well isn’t so easy in third world countries.

Thanks to the work being performed by ACU Chemistry Professor Dr. Bruce Hopkins and his students Cliff Pruett and Dru Collins, it might just be a little easier to get desperately needed medication for tropical diseases sometime in the future.

Because of funding from an internal Math-Science grant that Dr. Hopkins won in Spring 2013, two undergraduate students, Cliff Pruett and Dru Collins, have spent hours synthesizing compounds in the basement of the Science Building in order to possibly discover drug molecules that can combat malaria in tropical third world countries. Pruett began work last fall. Collins joined the effort in the summer.

Besides paying for student undergraduate labor, the grant purchased pint sized “labs in a shoebox” that can simultaneously process six compounds at a time, speeding up the process by a factor of six.

“The ‘lab in a shoebox’ we use is called a Bill-Board. It enables students to carry out multi-step chemical syntheses on six compounds  simultaneously, while simplifying the manipulations. We can easily teach undergraduates with minimal lab experience how to use it.”

Since drug companies are for profit, there is little interest in investing money into researching drugs that can cure diseases in tropical third world countries because drug companies would not receive a return on their research dollars. Since it can cost around a billion dollars to develop a single drug, drug companies tend to primarily market in developed countries with citizens who can afford to purchase the drugs, especially countries with health insurance paying for much of the cost.

Because of this reality, the research that Dr. Hopkins and his two undergraduate assistants are doing can possibly contribute to the discovery of drugs for these overlooked diseases in third world countries sometime in the future. Dr. Hopkins’ project, in collaboration with Dr. Bill Scott who originated the idea at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), is an open-source, distributed research program designed to replicate efforts at multiple institutions and speed up the process of developing new drugs virtually free of charge. If effective drugs can be discovered, the drug formulas can be shared with third world countries that can in turn produce and distribute the drugs in their own countries.

A double benefit of the internal grant Dr. Hopkins won as a result of the generosity of Math-Science grant contributors is the ability to replicate the process with undergraduates enrolled in chemistry classes as early as next fall. With a number of chemistry students replicating the drug synthesizing process in lab settings, the process will be replicated exponentially, thus speeding the possibility of getting these much needed drugs much sooner.

“This Distributed Drug Discovery program, as conceived by Bill Scott, is an example of contextualized learning. Students will be learning principles and techniques of organic chemistry, while, at the same time, working to provide health solutions for people who do not have the tools or resources to help themselves. This fits very nicely into the mission and vision of ACU.”photo

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