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The sugar doctor
published: Wednesday | January 17, 2007

Ross Sheil, Staff Reporter

Nobel-Prize nominated Jamaican scientist Dr. Bert Fraser-Reid in his laboratory at the Natural Products and Glycotechnology Research Institute at North Carolina State University, in the United States. - Contributed

Until the recent outbreak, malaria was not a disease readily associated with Jamaica, the last previous occurrence being in 1965. More surprising is that Dr. Bert Fraser-Reid, the first scientist to have synthesised the suspected toxin that causes cerebral malaria, is Jamaican.

This breakthrough could one day become the basis of a vaccine against malaria which claims over one million lives per year, hopes Dr. Fraser-Reid, who was himself a victim of the disease while a 13-year-old schoolboy at Clarendon College.

Nearly 60 years after that mosquito bite and living in the United States - where he heads up the Natural Products and Glycotechnology (NPG) Research Institute at North Carolina State University - Dr. Fraser-Reid has dedicated his career to attacking diseases prevalent in the Third World. He founded the NPG with his wife Lillian in 1996.

Non-profit organisation

As he acknowledges, such challenges are not financially attractive for pharmaceutical companies, and points out that his own organisation is non-profit and employs mainly young scientists.

"I help to finance a lot of my work with my own money. I lend my own money and I don't get paid. But certainly one large factor is just simply the pride and knowing that the chemistry which I have developed could have an impact on these diseases which affect the Third World," he explained of the motivation behind the science.

Working as a 'carbohydrate chemist', he synthesises oligosaccharides, large molecular structures (or polymers) of sugars which coat the diseases. This process provides material for immunologists to break down the oligosaccharides and develop vaccines.

"What we are trying to do is to understand the mechanism of the disease and how it affects the immune system to build a strategy to affect the parasite and not the host," explained Channe D. Gowda, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University, who is working on the vaccine based on Dr. Fraser-Reid's work.

The Jamaican first discovered the reaction that simplified the synthesis of oligosaccharides in 1988, for which he remains the only Jamaican to be nominated for the ultimate award in science, the Nobel Prize.

Seven years later, this became the basis for the first laboratory synthesis of a class of compounds associated with African sleeping sickness.

This prompted a phone call from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva which put him in touch with other scientists who believed that a similar compound was responsible for causing the toxicity of malaria.

He also realised that a similar, more complicated synthesis could be attempted for tuberculosis, a disease which the WHO estimated killed 1.7 million people in 2004. HIV-infected persons are particularly vulnerable to the disease.

This led to collaboration with Professor Aharona Glatman-Freedman, a paediatric infectious diseases specialist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Children's Hospital, at Montefiore in New York. Professor Glatman-Freedman identified the oligosaccharide, which other scientists had previously failed to discover, and contacted Dr. Fraser-Reid, whom she knew by reputation, to synthesise it.

World record

The largest hetero-oligosaccharide to be synthesised, it was hailed as a "world record" in the field by Cambridge University chemistry professor Steven V. Ley.

The collaborators have filed separate patents and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of two organisations considering their proposal for funding.

Both declined to speculate on when a breakthrough might come.

"The tuberculosis vaccine is going to be a hard slog because the bacterium doesn't want to die and you can expect it to fight because it's been around longer than we have!" he said.

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