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Ancient and very valuable

A study conducted by the group led by Roberto Berlinck at USP indicates that sponges, the oldest animals in the world, are sources of compounds that could lead to the production of medicines to fight various diseases 

Sponges are animals (of the phylum Porifera) that do not have nervous, digestive or circulatory systems. Because they do not move, they rely on maintaining a constant water flow through their bodies to obtain food and oxygen. They are very simple organisms, but they stand out due to certain characteristics.

One characteristic is that they are pioneers. Sponges are the first animals to inhabit the earth, according to several studies, including that carried out by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published in the March issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Through the use of genetic analyses, the group has confirmed the existence of sponges 640 million years ago, nearly 100 million years before the Cambrian explosion when most major animals appeared on the planet.

Another characteristic that makes sponges attractive as a subject of research is the fact that they hold significant medicinal potential. This is due to the presence of chemical compounds in them that may be used to produce medicines to fight viruses, bacteria and even tumors.

The discovery and development of natural products with bioactive potential using marine organisms is one of the main lines of research of the group headed up by Professor Roberto Gomes de Souza Berlinck at the São Carlos Chemistry Institute (IQSC) of the University of São Paulo (USP).

“There are many marine organisms that are the source of a wide variety of small molecules we call secondary metabolites, because they are not essential for the survival of these organisms,” he said.

“Although secondary metabolites are not very important for these animals, they are critical for the survival of several species, in which, for example, they play a role in chemical defense or in protecting against bacteria,” said the researcher who leads the thematic project entitled, “Biodiversity components of Brazilian islands and their metabolic role – an integrated approach”, funded by FAPESP.

Berlinck’s group discovered metabolites in sponges that were found to produce compounds active against leishmania and trypanosomes, the parasites that cause Leishmaniasis and Chagas disease, respectively.

“It is important to find new drugs to fight these diseases because those that are currently available to treat Leishmaniasis, for example, have been used for a long time and are very toxic,” he said.

“We carried out a detailed study of the various antiparasitic compounds we discovered, such as alkaloids, and have conducted in vivo and in vitro analyses on the mechanisms through which these compounds present pharmacological activities,” Berlinck went on to say.

Metabolites found by the researchers in sponges of the species Monanchora arbuscula, collected off the southeastern coast of Brazil, have led to the isolation of a series of guanidine and pyrimidine alkaloids with antiparasitic action against Trypanosoma cruzi and Leishmania infantum.

“And it is important to point out that these compounds affect these specific parasites and not humans, which is an advantage in treating the diseases they cause,” Berlinck said.

The findings of the study carried out by the IQSC-USP group together with scientists from the Adolfo Lutz Institute of the University of British Columbia (Canada) and other institutions, was published in 2015 in the Journal of Natural Products.

New materials

Berlinck was one of the speakers at FAPESP Week Michigan-Ohio, held March 28 – April 1 in the United States. On the event’s final day, in Columbus, Berlinck took part in a panel discussion entitled “Materials and Manufacturing,” along with Chris Hammel and Carlos Castro of the Ohio State University, Marcelo Knobel (Brazilian Nanotechnology National Laboratory (LLNano) and Unicamp) and Holmer Savastano Junior (USP).

At the laboratory he heads up in the Department of Physics at OSU, Hammel and his group are developing systems to produce nanometric scale images and trying to understand dynamic interactions in magnetic structures.

For example, the researchers are studying the behavior of spin-based electronics (which explores the quantum propensity of electrons to spin) on different materials and the phenomena that occur in magnetic and microscopic structures and various types of complex materials.

Knobel talked about the research studies he is coordinating, especially with regard to the magnetic properties of nanocrystals. In a study published in Scientific Reports, by the Nature group, Knobel and his colleagues at Unicamp and the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS) described a new method that has potential applications in the field of health.

The researchers discovered how to pause the process of thermal decomposition of iron with the presence of silver particles, resulting in the formation of a type of nanoparticle with interesting properties.

According to Knobel, implementation of the method is relatively simple and could contribute to the development of nanoparticles that can be used to transport medicines.

Castro, born in El Salvador, presented the studies he is conducting to develop DNA-based nanometric devices in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at OSU.

The goal is to produce systems that are capable of self-assembly according to the DNA structure, and that can be programmed and controlled for various applications, such as transporting medicines.

Savastano, a professor in the Faculty of Animal Science and Food Engineering, and head of the Research Center on Materials for Biosystems at USP talked about using sustainable materials in manufacturing.

The researcher coordinates the FAPESP-funded thematic project entitled Agrowaste, which is investigating the potential use of agroindustrial waste in materials for housing and infrastructure (roads, for example).

In his talk, Savastano pointed out the study conducted using the curauá (Ananas erectifolius), whose fibers demonstrate mechanical properties that are superior to other plants and that may be an important alternative as reinforcement in cement-based compounds in the construction industry.

The study was carried out together with Victor Li in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, funded by that U.S. university and FAPESP.

Heitor Shimizu, in Columbus (EUA) | Agência FAPESP