A PhD-student in chemistry at Stellenbosch University, Jessica Thibaud, is one of six South African female scientists to have received a generous grant from L'Oréal's Fondation L'Oreal and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).
The L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science international programme provides support to female scientists at all stages in their scientific careers. According to an official media release, women still represent just 33.3% of researchers globally, and their work rarely gains the recognition it deserves.
Jessica's research focuses on identifying new chemical compounds to disrupt the life cycle of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum after it enters the human host. It is no easy task to identify these compounds, however, as there are literally thousands/millions stored in databanks all over the world.
In 2020, malaria, a mosquito-borne parasitic disease was responsible for some 627 000 deaths worldwide, of which 96% were in Africa. The parasite is also showing increased resistance to antimalarial medication currently in use.
Jessica's research is just one aspect of a larger research focus on the design and development of antimalarial drugs, led by Dr Katherine de Villiers in SU's Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science. Dr de Villiers' research group recently developed a two-dimensional map of antiplasmodium chemical space. Generated using a simple principal component analysis algorithm, the map visually clusters together those compounds with known antimalarial activity. For her MSc-studies under Dr de Villiers, Jessica combined this map with recently acquired skills in machine learning to identify a subset of 6 000 compounds that showed potential of targeting a specific enzyme in the parasite's life cycle.
Since beginning her PhD, Jessica has benefitted from further training provided through the H3D Foundation at the University of Cape Town and Ersilia in the use of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence to speed up the process of discovering new drugs. Using these computational methods, she was able to narrow down the search even further to a potential 30 compounds. She is now in the process of testing these compounds in the laboratory to find the one or two with the most potential for further development.
“Apart from their anti-malarial activity, these compounds also have to show important drug-like characteristics such as solubility, selectivity, and potency before they can be considered for further development," she explains.
She plans to use the L'Oreal grant for a more powerful computer to use in the laboratory, and to attend an international congress on bioinorganic chemistry later this year. As part of the grant she also attended a week-long training programme for the 25 African L'Oreal-UNESCO laureates in the Côte d'Ivoire.