• January 27, 2022

UTEP Research Opens Door to Revolution in Drug Development

(UTEP) Chu-Young Kim, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The University of Texas at El Paso, has solved a 30-year-old scientific riddle — a feat that is being documented in the latest edition of Science, one of the world’s most renowned academic journals.

Kim’s study provides the first detailed look at the structure and function of an enzyme that produces polyketide natural products — compounds found within nature that are widely used as human medicine.

The publication of Kim’s research article marks one of the first times a project led by a UTEP faculty member is featured in Science, which has published original research since 1880. Kim said his team’s work represents advancement of fundamental scientific knowledge that can significantly impact drug development and discovery.

“Dr. Kim’s research has the potential to revolutionize drug development,” said Robert A. Kirken, Ph.D., dean of the College of Science. “He has offered a first look at the complex structure of enzymes that produce polyketides, a discovery that helps us understand how nature synthesizes drugs. The ability to create drugs based on natural designs is both cost-effective and promising for patients.”

Kim’s work is supported by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to decipher how bacteria produce complex drug molecules. His 15-year career has been devoted to understanding how soil bacteria synthesize useful drugs and genetically engineering them to produce modified drugs.

Kim said these bacteria contain special enzymes that produce life-saving molecules. What has remained obscure until now is what these enzymes look like and how they function. Along with his work on the UTEP campus, Kim and his team utilized intense X-ray beams available at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory, as well as an electron microscope at Cornell University.

“This is exciting from a basic science perspective but also because of what it will allow us to do next,” Kim said. “Now that we know what these enzymes look like and how they function, we can efficiently engineer them to produce new drugs that are not found in nature. It’s also historic because it stands as evidence of how UTEP has become a stronger and stronger player in research.”

Kim added that the ability to produce polyketides using engineered bacteria will significantly cut the time it takes to develop new drugs. Chemical synthesis, the current method, is a painstaking process that could take years and offer low yields, making it impractical from a commercial standpoint and unaffordable for patients. Kim’s revelation could allow for a modified natural product that could be inexpensive and widely distributed.

“This is very exciting, especially for antibiotic and anticancer drug discovery,” Kim said.

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