College cocktails lead to science career

August 18, 2008

If you knew what possessed the young Jim Sacchettini to become a biochemist, you might look upon the "bar scene" more approvingly. But that story's for later.

Instead, ponder what Sacchettini calls "the diseases of the poor" - infectious diseases that not long ago were considered wiped from the face of the Earth - tuberculosis and malaria, for instance.

Sacchettini saw these maladies firsthand in the Bronx. He had gone there in 1990 from St. Louis, Mo., after earning his doctorate at Washington University.

"It was like being in a developing country," said Sacchettini, who was a researcher at Albert Einstein School of Medicine. "And we were awakened to the fact that infectious diseases like tuberculosis really had never left."

Einstein is near Rikers Island, a New York City jail which houses some 17,000 inmates at a time, according to the city's Correction Department. In the late 1980s, a drug-resistant form of TB developed among inmates who unwittingly spread it throughout New York as they were released, Sacchettini noted.

At the time, though he had already started working on TB, there was not much research going on for infectious diseases. But the Rikers episode and others caused a boom that focused on the need worldwide for better treatment options for this disease, he said. Sacchettini came to Texas A&M University in 1996 and now is professor of biochemistry and biophysics with Texas AgriLife Research and Wolfe-Welch Chair in Science director.

With this focus on infectious diseases, Sacchettini, and colleague Dr. Thomas Ioerger in the university's computer science department, developed a method which is the basis for all his drug discovery research: make the protein that is principle to the disease, crystalize it and depict it in 3-D form on a computer, then after seeing the protein's vulnerable spot, make inhibitors to block its function.

"It's virtual drug screening," he said. "At the protein's active site, the computer tries to fit drug-like molecules into it to block it."

With some 2 million molecules to screen, that process might have taken 40 years to complete by old methods, Sacchettini said. But it takes his lab just two weeks to process because Sacchettini and colleagues thought of a way to use university computers in off hours while they are not being used by students.

When a blocker is found, he added, the lab buys or makes the compound and creates another 3-D image "with the inhibitor bound to it and try to improve on it," he said. "No matter the disease, the process is always the same."

Repetitious but not boring, said Sacchettini whose enthusiasm extends to a 50-person team. On a recent visit to his lab, technicians and students bustled about like stock floor traders in an up market.

"What's challenging or unusual, that's what keeps my job exciting," Sacchettini said. "Something that strikes you where you think you can make a difference."

In addition to TB and malaria, his team is studying drug design for Alzheimer's, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

"The challenge comes from the differences among proteins," he said. "If I think someone has never tried something, that's the drive for me to get into it.

"Sometimes we try an idea and it doesn't work, but being an academic means we have the freedom to try new ideas and approaches to solve a long-standing problem."

As for his career choice in college, Sacchettini first worked as a bartender.

"I could mix drinks without measuring," Sacchettini recalls. "Turns out that was perfect training for biochemistry."
-end-


Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

Related Infectious Diseases Articles from Brightsurf:

Understanding the spread of infectious diseases
Physicists at M√ľnster University (Germany) have shown in model simulations that the COVID-19 infection rates decrease significantly through social distancing.

Forecasting elections with a model of infectious diseases
Election forecasting is an innately challenging endeavor, with results that can be difficult to interpret and may leave many questions unanswered after close races unfold.

COVID-19 a reminder of the challenge of emerging infectious diseases
The emergence and rapid increase in cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus, pose complex challenges to the global public health, research and medical communities, write federal scientists from NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Certain antidepressants could provide treatment for multiple infectious diseases
Some antidepressants could potentially be used to treat a wide range of diseases caused by bacteria living within cells, according to work by researchers in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and collaborators at other institutions.

Opioid epidemic is increasing rates of some infectious diseases
The US faces a public health crisis as the opioid epidemic fuels growing rates of certain infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, heart infections, and skin and soft tissue infections.

Infectious diseases could be diagnosed with smartphones in sub-Saharan Africa
A new Imperial-led review has outlined how health workers could use existing phones to predict and curb the spread of infectious diseases.

The Lancet Infectious Diseases: Experts warn of a surge in vector-borne diseases as humanitarian crisis in Venezuela worsens
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is accelerating the re-emergence of vector-borne diseases such as malaria, Chagas disease, dengue, and Zika virus, and threatens to jeopardize public health gains in the country over the past two decades, warn leading public health experts.

Glow-in-the-dark paper as a rapid test for infectious diseases
Researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology (The Netherlands) and Keio University (Japan) present a practicable and reliable way to test for infectious diseases.

Math shows how human behavior spreads infectious diseases
Mathematics can help public health workers better understand and influence human behaviors that lead to the spread of infectious disease, according to a study from the University of Waterloo.

Many Americans say infectious and emerging diseases in other countries will threaten the US
An overwhelming majority of Americans (95%) think infectious and emerging diseases facing other countries will pose a 'major' or 'minor' threat to the U.S. in the next few years, but more than half (61%) say they are confident the federal government can prevent a major infectious disease outbreak in the US, according to a new national public opinion survey commissioned by Research!America and the American Society for Microbiology.

Read More: Infectious Diseases News and Infectious Diseases Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.