Health: a molecular issue
The modification and systematization of the smallest compounds of matter make it possible to convert natural substances into pharmaceuticals.
One of the most important challenges facing our society is to ensure and improve the health and well-being of its population. In recent years, science has advanced enormously, giving rise to novel formulas that make it possible to cure the hitherto incurable. However, after the enormous advances in medicine that humanity has witnessed in recent decades, there are many threats to our health that have no solution. Cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, AIDS and malaria still have no efficient and complete cures. The same is true for the immense range of 'rare' diseases. Due to their low incidence, they have also been relegated to the background in health policies and research investment.
Science is working on the development of new therapies by searching for and optimizing active compounds based on natural products, of which the Canary Islands have a wide variety, with 4,000 endemic living species as sources. However, there is also the possibility of designing molecules that behave intelligently to fulfil this mission. In this direction, the molecular engineering research group at the Institute of Natural Products and Agrobiology (IPNA-CSIC) is working on the synthesis of compounds that act in the right way and in the right place to produce the desired therapeutic effect and also reduce or minimize their side effects.
The small molecules that make up the microscopic structure of all living organisms may hold the key to finding an effective response to those diseases that remain untreated. The IPNA scientists are experts in controlling these chemical processes to create value-added compounds such as chemical probes for the control of specific biological processes, or new molecular structures with applications in materials science. They are also developing novel drugs that can put an end to the uncertainty of disease processes.
Drug development is a complex process in which many disciplines are involved. Typically, it begins with the identification of a target protein associated with a human disease. An experiment called 'high-throughput screening' is then performed to find the chemical compound or antibody that binds to or impacts on the target in a way that affects the disease. Chemists are in charge of getting to know the molecules and finding different functionalities for them or significantly improving the ones they already have. Once chemical compounds or antibodies have been identified by their binding to a target, they are further developed to improve their safety and efficacy. The resulting chemical compound or antibody becomes a drug candidate, and an initial safety and efficacy profile of the drug candidate must be determined before testing in humans. At this stage, scientists use computer models and laboratory tests, usually with animal models, to assess the safety of the drug candidate. This is followed by human testing in phases, expanding the sample groups further and further until it can be licensed and sold.