M3 Features

Ebola drug hope in Bengali chemist's lab

January 3, 2015

The UK public health agency, Public Health England (PHE), has shortlisted two drug molecules developed by a Bengal-born scientist at a research institute in Bangalore for evaluation as potential treatment for the deadly Ebola virus.

The molecules synthesised by Jayanta Haldar, a chemist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bangalore, and his doctoral students are among 20 novel compounds at present being screened for their effectiveness against the Ebola virus which has no cure so far. What sets these molecules apart from conventional antibiotics is the mechanism by which they act.

Ebola outbreaks in several West African countries have so far killed over 7,300 people, and the World Health Organisation has issued a crisis alert asking countries worldwide to stay alert, prepared to manage and contain cases.

The 20 candidate drugs will be tested on samples of the Ebola virus kept in high-security laboratories of PHE. The screening is done by PHE scientists with support from the Welcome Trust, a research foundation in the UK.

The JNCASR molecules are the only ones from a developing country; the rest come from leading universities and pharmaceutical companies of the UK, the US and Europe.

The Indian compounds, codenamed NCK-8 and D-LANA-14, are chemicals that mimic the action of small proteins called anti-microbial peptides. The JNCASR scientists have, through test-tube studies in their laboratory, found that the two molecules are able to kill several species of disease-causing bacteria, including superbugs that are resistant to most antibiotics.

"In the UK, they are being tried out on a virus for the first time, but we are confident that they will work," said Haldar, who originally hails from Dayarampur village near Kulpi in South 24-Parganas district.

Existing antibiotics work typically by disrupting one or more essential functions of pathogens so that the body's immune system can overpower them. Most disease-causing bacteria over time however mutate and find a way around and thus become resistant to such drugs.

These compounds, on the other hand, puncture the protective outer membrane of pathogenic bugs, and thus make them vulnerable. They also prevent bugs from mutating, said Haldar, who was assisted in the work by students Chandradhish Ghosh and Mohini Mohan Konai.

"It's very similar to pulling down a building rather than cutting off electricity or shutting down water supply, which can possibly be revived," says Haldar, who studied in Presidency College before moving to Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore for his Masters and PhD.

"The best thing about these molecules is that they can be synthesised in three to four short steps," said Ghosh, who has worked extensively on NCK-8. While Ghosh is a product of St Xavier's College, Konai, who specialises on synthesising and studying D-LANA-14, went to Visva-Bharati University before he enrolled for an integrated PhD at JNCASR.

"Currently all these compounds are going through in-vitro experiments. Of these, up to five will be selected for in-vivo screening in January 2015," said Seshadri Vasan, a PHE official and co-investigator of the project.

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