Doctoral Graduate Aims to Rid the World of Zika Virus
Research into the Zika virus which is transmitted mainly by mosquitoes resulted in Dr Nikita Devnarain graduating with a PhD degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from UKZN.
Devnarain’s thesis was titled: The Methyltransferase and Helicase Enzymes as Therapeutic Targets of Zika Virus: A Bio-Computational Analysis of Interactions with Potential Inhibitors.
Using computational pharmaceutical chemistry, Devnarain made huge advances in gaining a better understanding of an anti-Zika Vaccine (ZIKV) drug design, discovery and delivery against the virus.
Outbreaks of the Zika virus, which is transmitted primarily by Aedes mosquitoes, have been widely reported in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.
A total of 86 countries and territories have reported evidence of mosquito-transmitted Zika infection, according to the World Health Organization. Symptoms of the virus are generally mild and include fever, a rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise and headaches, which all usually last for between two and seven days. However, the effects are devastating in pregnant women and in children.
If infected during pregnancy, the virus causes microcephaly and other congenital abnormalities in the developing foetus and newborn. Zika infection in pregnancy also results in pregnancy complications such as foetal loss, stillbirth, and preterm birth. Despite all this, there is no vaccine or medicine which fights the virus successfully.
‘The rampant Zika virus received worldwide attention after becoming a global crisis following the Brazilian epidemic in 2015,’ said Devnarain. ‘From an obscure and neglected pathogen, The Zika virus is now a notorious virus associated with neurological disorders in infants and adults. Since 2016, the rapid research response from the global scientific community has led to the discovery of numerous potential small molecule inhibitors and vaccines against the Zika virus. In spite of this massive research initiative, there is still no effective antiviral or vaccine.’
Devnarain’s study applied computer-aided drug design techniques to better understand the drug design process. Computational approaches adopted included molecular docking, virtual screening, molecular modeling and molecular dynamics which aid in facilitating the filtration of large databases of compounds to sift out potential lead compounds. Her study also assessed the bioavailability and blood-brain barrier permeability of screened drugs to scrutinise the list of potential Zika virus inhibitors.
Her results presented an all-inclusive in silico assessment to advance research in drug design and the development of Zika virus inhibitors. Hence, the study provides a greater understanding of the structural dynamics that occur in unbound and inhibitor-bound Zika virus target enzymes. ‘The constituents of this thesis are considered an essential platform in the progression of research toward anti-ZIKV drug design, discovery and delivery against the virus,’ she said.
‘To discover an anti-viral to cure this rampant virus would be a blessing to humanity. Together, as one global community, we can try to rid the world of sickness, one virus at a time,’ said Devnarain.
Currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the Nano Drug Delivery Unit at UKZN, Devnarain was supervised by UKZN’s top researcher, Professor Mahmoud Soliman. ‘During the course of my PhD I’ve gained so much writing experience, particularly from Professor Soliman, who I am extremely indebted to,’ said Devnarain. ‘My thesis highlights computational methods that have been refined and optimised by the Molecular Bio-Computation and Drug Design Research Group at UKZN headed by Soliman.
‘The road to where I am today has been hard and I imagine it doesn’t get easier from here on, so I’m thankful to God for sending me an amazing life partner and power source – my husband, Shaylen – who gives me strength to keep going. My dream has always been to study and become a scientist so I sought assistance from my uncle to complete my BSc Biomedical Science degree. Thereafter, with the financial aid of NSFAS, NRF and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), I’ve been able to complete my studying career goals – and I’m now finally a doctor!’
Words: MaryAnn Francis
Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan