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Medicinal chemistry expertise contributes to disease understanding

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Andrea Vernall and her PhD students
Andrea Vernall (seated front right) and her PhD students (from left) Sameek Singh and Anna Cooper, together with research assistant Sara de la Harpe. Photo courtesy of Lisa Reid.

Ever since her high school days Dr Andrea Vernall has had a love of chemistry and biology, now her passion is helping contribute to the understanding of human disease.

The lecturer in biopharmaceutical sciences and medicinal chemistry specialises in making tools to help understand the fundamental pharmacology of disease.

"You can’t design a drug to target something unless you know what you are targeting," she explains.

Her present research involves development of peptidomimetics - a small protein-like chain designed to mimic a peptide—and fluorescent probes that help identify certain cell receptors.

Fluorescent probes are quite literally a glowing marker that connect with certain receptors in a cell to help identify disease mechanisms.

It might, for example, distinguish between a cancer cell and a healthy cell.

"If something is glowing in the body you can follow where it goes, noting what happens."

Dr Vernall is currently developing probes that will reveal essential information about cancer, pain and inflammation mechanisms that will allow the design of new and safer drugs.

Next month (October) Dr Vernall celebrates her second-year anniversary at the University of Otago's School of Pharmacy.

After completing a science degree and then a PhD in chemistry at the University of Canterbury, she worked as a research officer at the University of Queensland's Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

In 2009 she took up a role in the UK as a research fellow in the University of Nottingham's School of Pharmacy. Though it was officially her first foray in a professional pharmacy institution, Dr Vernall says her area of research interest is applicable in many environments.

What was new for her when beginning her role at Otago however, was teaching; but it is something she is particularly enjoying.

"I enjoy the students, it's a very social job; I find it interesting trying to put myself in the students’ shoes and thinking do they understand this?"

As well as undergraduate students, Dr Vernall supervises a group of PhD and postgraduate students who are all working on research topics related to medicinal chemistry and looking to make biological tools and biologically active compounds.