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Latin America and Caribbean Storytelling Challenge: Meet Dra. Maria Elena de Lima

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As a biologist and then a biochemist/neuroscientist, de Lima has spent years exploring the potential of biodiversity, specifically animal venoms, selecting and studying biomolecules as models for new drugs. Through her extensive research, the professor has identified how a toxin from the Brazilian wandering spider has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of erectile dysfunction.
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Dra. Maria Elena de Lima is a professor and researcher at Santa Casa-BH Instituto de Ensino e Pesquisa, Brazil, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Fundação Ezequiel Dias, and Belo Horizonte, MG.

She profiled how a peptide derived from a spider toxin can be used to create a topical treatment to treat erectile dysfunction. These findings, the work of dozens of students and researchers, could help men and women who do not respond to or are unable to use conventional drugs.

Thanks to her noteworthy contributions championing scientific advancements, de Lima was recognized as one of five winners of the Champions of Science® Storytelling Challenge: Latin America and Caribbean Edition.

de Lima's Submission
Our work describes the discovery of a potential drug originated in biodiversity that could be indicated in the treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED) in subjects refractory to the usual therapies.

From previous studies with the Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria nigriventer) toxin (PnTx2-6, 48 aa), we designed and synthesized a 19 amino acid residue peptide, called PnPP-19 (Phoneutria nigriventer potentiator peptide, 19 aa), that potentiated the erection in rats and mice, and also reversed erectile dysfunction in hypertensive and diabetic animals. Contrarily to the model toxin, the peptide did not show toxicity/immunogenicity to the animals.

Pilot tests with heathy human beings (6 males and 6 females) performed under the coordination of Biozeus Biopharmaceutical S.A (partner company that acquired the patent from UFMG), showed that PnPP-19 topically applied to the genital region (2 mg/application), has increased the systolic pressure of the cavernous artery in over 100% in volunteers of both sexes, and it was safe, not affecting blood pressure or chemical parameters in the blood of volunteers.

Currently, a pilot test has been performed in 30 patients, voluntary men with erectile dysfunction associated to hypertension or diabetes. Following the results obtained in animals, PnPP-19 is expected to be effective in these patients. The next steps involve the final marketing formulation, toxicity regulatory pre-clinical tests (already started), and future clinical trials, Phases 1 and 2.
It is worth saying that these results come from a work group involving dozens of students and researchers, whose published works attest their participations.

The importance of this work is in the possibility of making a new topic drug available as a potentiator in erectile dysfunction for men and women, or as a treatment for subjects with erectile dysfunction, notably diabetic and hypertensive patients. The drug would also be indicated for patients who do not respond or do not have indication for the use of conventional drugs. For example, the class of drugs (sildenafil, taldafil, etc.) is not indicated for hypertensive patients treated with anti-hypertensive drugs. On the other hand, other patients, as diabetic patients for example, cannot respond to these treatments. This drug may also be helpful to women, to whom there is no effective treatment for sexual dysfunction.

A new drug, serving a part of the population that still has no drug available for erectile dysfunction, can bring in new sources of foreign currency to the country and generate new jobs. This research also allowed, and still allows, the formation of researchers, in different levels (Undergraduate Research, Masters, Doctorate and PhD), generating a number of scientific works and patents), increasing the potential of researches.

There has been a technology transfer to the company Biozeus Biopharmaceutical S.A that is investing in pre-clinical and clinical tests, required to make the peptide (renamed BZ371) into a drug available for human use. Pre-clinical tests with this peptide are the first to be completed by the company, among the projects it develops (see homepage: http://biozeus.com.br/first-clinical-trial-sponsored-by-biozeus-concluded/).

The possible impact of this work to the society is based in the following: i) it is known that 10 to 20% of male adults experience erectile dysfunction - ED (De Rogatis, 2008); ii) the prevalence of ED is very high and must increase considerably, affecting over 300 million men in 2025 (AYTA et al., 1999). In Brazil, the prevalence of ED has been assessed in around 41.5% (men over 18 years old) (ABDO, 2006), iii) Not all the patients with ED have an indication for the use of the reference drugs in current market.

Considering this information, we believe that if peptide PnPP-19 is approved as a drug for human use, the impact will be very relevant in terms of world market and as a product truly generated from the Brazilian biodiversity, which research has been developed in Brazil.

Motivation/Inspiration for Our Research
As a biologist, initially, and then a biochemist/neuroscientist with emphasis in pharmacological studies, I have a great interest and motivation to know and unveil the potential of our biodiversity, focusing in animal venoms, selecting and studying biomolecules as models of new drugs. With our basic studies on animal venoms, what would be relevant to contribute to human health? This question has driven our research.

Why Is Telling Science Stories Important?
I believe that telling stories is a great way of people motivation and formation. An example is that the stories that we were told in childhood and remained in our minds may directly influence our choices in the future. When well told, they transmit us concepts, stances and lead to new motivations.

It is an improvement and cultural insertion tool that, at any given age, we can use to follow the origins and evolution of science.

About the Latin America and Caribbean Storytelling Challenge
Through the Champions of Science® Storytelling Challenge: Latin America and Caribbean Edition, Johnson & Johnson invited innovators working in the region to share their stories to help engage the public, encourage advocacy for scientific innovation and inspire youth in the region to pursue STEM careers that will help change the trajectory of health for humanity.

After receiving nearly 100 submissions between January and March 2019, an independent committee of scientists, policymakers and science journalists reviewed the applications and determined the winners.

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