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Searching for new medical agents

Posted October 29, 2015

The antibiotic penicillin, the cancer medication taxol, or the anti-malaria drug artemisinin (for which the Chinese scientist Youyou Tu was a joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in October) are examples of important natural substances. Originally found in plants and microorganisms such as fungi or bacteria, they are now also applied in therapeutic treatment. Such microorganisms produce a variety of different biologically active and chemically challenging molecules that make them a potentially valuable source of new medical drugs. Scientists from Tunisia, Egypt, and Germany are currently working together at Bielefeld University on isolating previously unexplored natural substances from strains of bacteria, characterizing them, and studying their uses in medicine. The German–Arabic research and training network ‘Novel Cytotoxic Drugs from Extremophilic Actinomycetes’ is being funded by the German Academic Exchange Service’s (DAAD) ‘Change by Exchange’ programme.

Headed by Professor Dr. Norbert Sewald from Bielefeld, Professor Dr. Aly Raies and Dr. Imène Zendah El Euch from Tunisia, and Professor Dr. Mohamed Shaaban from Egypt, eight Arabic visiting scientists are currently working on isolating potential new agents from microorganisms (actinomycetes) in Bielefeld University’s Organic and Bioorganic Chemistry research group. The strains of bacteria are being gathered at various sites in Tunisia and Egypt and are now being studied more closely in Bielefeld. The researchers are profiting from Bielefeld University’s interdisciplinary cooperation in the fields of microbiology, organic chemistry, and biochemistry. After having laboriously isolated the natural substances from the bacteria, the scientists are trying to clarify the precise composition of these compounds.

‘It’s always amazing to see which complex molecules are formed in nature. Through their metabolism, these bacteria selectively produce highly complex and biologically active natural substances from simple sugars and amino acids. These would be extremely difficult to access through chemistry,’ says Dr. Norbert Sewald, Professor of Organic and Bioorganic Chemistry at Bielefeld University and the coordinator of the DAAD-funded research network in Germany.

As well as promoting academic exchange, the goal is to accompany and support the upheavals in the Arabic world on the academic side, and to do this by focusing on the German–Arabic Transformation Partnership. This creates further opportunities for engaging in efforts to reform Arabic universities in cooperation with German partner universities. It is being supported by the German Federal Foreign Office. Currently, the ‘Change by Exchange’ programme is funding a total of 20 university partnerships and two specially developed international master’s degree programmes. ‘Education,’ Norbert Sewald emphasizes‚ ‘is one of the most important foundations for bringing about social change.’

Source: Bielefeld University


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