Biochemistry senior Tyler Sisley uses the lab’s state-of-the-art equipment to create and characterize compounds. Zach Donnenfield | Mustang News

On the fourth floor of the Warren J. Baker Center for Science and Mathematics (building 180), one professor and 12 students are hoping to find a cure for malaria.

Malaria is a disease that affects more than 215 million people in 91 countries worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, but it can be treated. However, the parasite that causes it is constantly changing and there is not one completely effective drug. If chemistry and biochemistry assistant professor Scott Eagon and his students are successful, that could change.

Eagon leads research on drug development targeting diseases such as malaria and cancer. While Eagon oversees the lab, students actually go through the entire drug development process on their own.

“One of the things that brought me here as a young professor was that I really liked the Learn by Doing motto,” Eagon said. “My expertise was in drug development, so this was an opportunity for me to get students involved and contribute to the development of drugs.”

Eagon selects students based on their potential to learn and grow in the lab, rather than by GPA. He said the nature of his research draws in students from multiple majors because they can understand that drug development to fight disease is also doing good for the world.

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Video by Taylor Petschl

The three students working specifically on a cure for malaria are part of the Harmine project. Harmine is a natural molecule found in some grasses and plants that had the potential to be a new treatment option for malaria, but was not good enough for human trials, according to Eagon. Under his direction, the group uses harmine as a starting point to develop closely related experimental drugs, known as a library.

The lab sends this “library” up to a partner lab at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada where they can be tested against the actual malaria parasite.

It is common for experimental treatments to undergo several rounds of testing and modification, but the process of creating these libraries can sometimes take longer than the average student spends doing research at Cal Poly. For the Harmine project, a new group of students picks up where the last group left off.  

Students in the lab

Biochemistry senior Tyler Sisley comes into the lab each day, chooses a molecule he will be working on and begins experimenting with it. Sisley is looking to create a pure compound and characterize it after conducting a series of chemical reactions.

Sisley was motivated to get involved at Eagon’s lab and the Harmine project because it has real-world impact. Sisley was ecstatic the first time he successfully synthesized a compound.

“I was actually considering getting a tattoo of it. Not because it’s a particularly known compound, and not because it will ever be useful as a medication — because these things fail all the time — but just because of the satisfaction of having made a compound,” Sisley said.

However, Sisley has seen his fair share of failure in the lab.

“You get really used to dealing with disappointment, but you get a thick skin and you go at it with a tenacity that makes the failure OK,” Sisley said. “You kind of just persevere, so when you do have successful reactions it’s that much more sweet.”

While failure is common, students remain highly motivated to continue the trial-and-error process.

Biological sciences senior Kasey Fitzsimmons said she appreciates the opportunity of a hands-on experience that relates to her career aspirations of being a pediatrician.

“I travel a lot. I’ve been to Peru and other places and have seen the impact that malaria has, especially on young kids,” Fitzsimmons said. “For me, I just have such a soft spot to try to do something for these kids.”

Fitzsimmons said her lab experience has been very beneficial in moving toward her ideal career.

“I think everything that I’ve done here has really prepared me for a future career and it’s been something that has helped my interest and inspired me to grow as a person, so I’m really grateful for that,” Fitzsimmons said.

Funding the project

This research comes at a cost. Eagon estimates the project would cost between $75,000 and $100,000 over its lifetime including collaborators’ costs, such as that for the lab in Canada.

As the principal investigator in the lab, it is Eagon’s job to secure funding for the lab and students. Funding is granted through different sources, including grants through the office of the Provost, federal agencies and the Frost fund.

“Funds during the academic year go entirely to purchasing chemicals, solvents, glassware and equipment we need to build our compounds,” Eagon wrote in an email to Mustang News.

Students reap the benefits of the grant funding each day in the lab, but it takes time to find out if the library of compounds will prove to be successful. Last year, 58 compounds were sent for testing. They hope to find out if any of those have potential to be an effective drug this summer. If not, it is back to the drawing board, according to Eagon.

Eagon says failure is exactly what makes research what it is. He says success stories are just the tip of the iceberg. The desire to contribute to the collective knowledge of mankind is what inspires him to press on.

While students at Cal Poly might never develop a cure for malaria, what Eagon, Sisley and Fitzsimmons do have is the opportunity to be part of a worldwide effort in advancing cures for the disease.

“Our job is to march straight into that darkness and see what we can find, illuminating another small piece of the unknown,” Eagon said.

 Graphic by Sierra Newell

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