UM research team travels to Peruvian Amazon for drug development

Monday, October 7, 2019 - 4:48pm

David Sherman, medicinal chemist and professor in the College of Pharmacy, prepares to explore coral reefs off the coast of Cuba, during a 2017 science diplomacy expedition.

David Sherman, medicinal chemist and professor in the College of Pharmacy, prepares to explore coral reefs off the coast of Cuba, during a 2017 science diplomacy expedition. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Amy Fraley

The Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan received $45 million in funding to advance their research initiatives, as a result of President Mark Schlissel’s Biosciences Initiative which was announced in November. One of their largest projects is the Expanding Natural Products Drug Discovery at the University of Michigan Biosciences Synergy Initiative, led by principal investigator Dr. David H. Sherman, medicinal chemist and professor in the College of Pharmacy. 

Utilizing their new funding, Sherman and his team have traveled around the world in search of natural products that could facilitate the creation of new life-saving drugs, such as antibiotics and anti-cancer agents, primarily in marine microorganisms. They scuba-dived their way through Costa Rica, the Red Sea and Papua New Guinea, and most recently traveled to the Boiling River in the Peruvian Amazon.

Until its official scientific discovery in 2011, the Boiling River was thought to be a myth. The river reaches up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit with no apparent heat source, and maintains a culture of extremophiles and life in this extreme heat. Sherman was intrigued by the Boiling River because it is a sect of the Amazon River rich in biodiversity but virtually untouched by outside researchers. 

It took months for Sherman and his team to get the legal permits necessary to study the land and to take samples out of Peru to bring back to the U.S. However, Sherman said if there is a commercial success from the benefits of Peru’s natural products, then some of those benefits will go towards helping sustain the area of origin. 

On the ground in Peru, Sherman was accompanied by several members of his team, various researchers from National Geographic, Peru and Brazil, as well as educators and artists. 

“There were a number of other people there with us focusing on different aspects of that habitat in the Amazon, so we were there and it was pretty much science heaven,” Sherman said.  

The river, boiling for miles, hosts bacteria and natural products that could hold the genomic key to new life-saving medicines. Rosa Maria Cristina Vasquez Espinoza, a Peruvian fourth-year chemical biology student on Dr. Sherman’s team, recalled her experience in an interview with The Daily. 

Espinoza explained arriving at the portion of the river she was studyinging required a trek. It was quite inaccessible, she said.

“To get there there was no path at all — we actually, we had to get some of the locals to come at 7:00 a.m. one day and open a path for us, so it was a very virgin area,” Espinoza said.

The group of natives known as the Shipibo have lived in this part of the Amazon for thousands of years and assisted Sherman’s team to navigate the treacherous parts of the river. Despite the dangers, Espinoza enjoyed the expedition and has high hopes for the results of their research. 

“There are multiple benefits that we as humans can get out of this work, but I think that whatever results we get can also benefit the Amazon, especially in its critical times right now, where we are losing about two soccerfields of the Amazon per minute,” Espinoza said.

The Peruvian samples are due to arrive at the University within the next week, and are expected to be available for University-wide use within the next year. Ashootosh Tripathi, director of Natural Products Discovery Core, is a close colleague of Sherman and helps lead the Expanding Natural Products Drug Discovery project. Tripathi explained once the samples are in the lab, his team will work on isolating the microbes to expedite the process of further drug-related research.

“Say if you have a drug target in mind, you can come to the center for chemical genomics, which is down the stairs, and access the library produced from these microbes and you can just screen it and let us know and know that hey we found these extracts that are active and what we will do is we will go deeper into it and find the molecule associated with it,” Tripathi said.

Ultimately, the team is hopeful about the implications of their research, particularly in regards to the potential it has for further life-saving drug development.

 “What we’re really excited about is when we find some brand new compound and get that kind of opportunity,” Sherman said.