IUPUI students, researchers begin collaboration with Cuban university to study neglected diseases

  • Nov. 21, 2016


INDIANAPOLIS -- Scientists in Indianapolis and Cuba are now collaborating to discover treatments for neglected diseases.

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis undergraduate students and researchers recently traveled to Cuba to conduct a workshop and begin a partnership with the University of Havana implementing IUPUI's Distributed Drug Discovery, or D3, program. The American Chemical Society and the School of Science at IUPUI funded the workshop.

D3 not only teaches students about chemistry concepts and lab techniques; it also contextualizes what they do in the lab, with the mission of discovering treatments for neglected diseases. These diseases often have no financial incentive for discovery because they affect small or poverty-stricken populations. D3 makes researching treatments affordable by breaking down drug-discovery steps into small components that can be distributed to multiple low-cost sites.

Many of these sites are in the classroom, where students at IUPUI and across the world synthesize, during organic chemistry lab courses, molecules that have drug potential. They can be tested for drug efficacy in biology lab courses or through open-access testing resources. Distributing drug discovery to undergraduate classrooms is not only cost-effective; it provides university students with more meaningful learning experiences.

"During the workshop in Havana, I could see the excitement students had because they understood that the work they were doing could have an impact -- not only in chemistry, but for health around the world," said Juan Sanchez, an IUPUI undergraduate student. "It's incredible that the collaboration of students from universities around the world might result in breakthroughs for neglected diseases."

D3 was developed by IUPUI researchers William Scott, Martin O'Donnell and Geno Samaritoni. The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have funded its basic research foundation and educational components over many years. Since 2003, D3 has trained more than 1,600 IUPUI undergraduate students and prepared 25 undergraduate researchers for their future careers.

The five-day D3 workshop was conducted at the University of Havana by IUPUI undergraduate students Priya Dave and Juan Sanchez, as well as Santa Clara University undergraduate Daniel Tiano, along with professors William Scott (IUPUI), Amelia Fuller (Santa Clara University) and Amy Dounay (Colorado College). They shared D3's mission and processes with University of Havana professor Daniel Garcia Rivera and students at the university. D3's first Latin American partnership created unique opportunities for Sanchez and Dave to translate D3's laboratory procedures into Spanish, serve as interpreters during the trip and act as teaching assistants in University of Havana classrooms.

With Cuban and United States diplomatic relations only recently renewed, this workshop provided an experience for students from both countries to learn about more than just chemistry.

"The Cuban students opened up their worlds to us -- they showed us their favorite ice-cream shops and the best views of the city, and they shared with us the difficulties they face," Dave said. "This trip showed me that chemistry has no language, boundaries or limits. It brought us all together."

IUPUI's Scott, O'Donnell and Samaritoni will continue to collaborate with Rivera in areas of complementary expertise and interest. Last week, Scott hosted Rivera's visit to Indianapolis, during which the two professors began planning future collaborative work, including extending D3 workshops to sites in Mexico and Brazil as well as promoting future student exchanges that include Cuban visits to the United States. Rivera and Scott also plan to develop new D3 procedures for making additional classes of potential drug molecules.

"D3 provides a mechanism to positively impact -- at a scientific, educational and cultural level -- neglected-disease discovery," Scott said. "With so much conflict and misunderstanding in the world, D3 can bring us together as we collaborate in a common effort to address problems that we all agree need solutions. It was extremely gratifying to see Cuban and U.S. students enthusiastically working together, learning science and about each other as they shared a common goal."

With the new University of Havana partnership, D3 now has seven global collaborators and hopes to continue to help students and researchers across the world have meaningful learning experiences for a humanitarian cause.

Researchers in a Cuban lab

Researchers in a Cuban lab

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Richard Schneider
Candace Gwaltney