Rights: The University of Waikato Published 18 October 2010 Download

Dr Bridget Stocker (Malaghan Institute) and Dr Mattie Timmer (Victoria University of Wellington) are chemists who make molecules to replicate those found in bacteria. Making molecules is a bit like cooking. Materials are added and mixed together to make the molecule they are replicating. The compound then needs to be tested to see if it is the one they want.


Well, an atom is one of the smallest basic building blocks, and by combining atoms together, you make molecules. As chemists, it’s kind of cool because you make something, and you can say that contains 4 carbons, 2 oxygens, 1 nitrogen and how many hydrogens, you know, and you actually know that... the techniques that we have, you can actually know exactly what you are looking at.

We are making molecules that are found in the bacteria that are known to enhance the immune response to that bacteria so that, when you are exposed to the actual bacteria, your body is already primed, so it can better react and better kill the bacteria before it becomes established.

To make a molecule, you have a starting material. It’s kind of like going to the supermarket for a chemist. And we have these different starting materials to make the thing we want – we need this, this, this, this, this, this. You then may need to modify different materials so they can be added together. Maybe you have a molecule that you are starting with has 6 carbons, and say 4 oxygens, and maybe you only want 5 carbons, but the rest of the molecule is exactly what you want, so maybe you have to somehow chop off an end of it to get the exact fragment that you want.

In terms of what we are doing for the adjuvant, one of our key materials is actually a sugar. It’s a carbohydrate-derived compound. The other stuff is all kinds of long hydrocarbon-based type compounds. It’s kind of like cooking. You tend to add, mix, see what you get and then go, “OK, is this what I want?” and then it’s how you build it up. And then you get something, and then you have to prove that you’ve made what you’ve made by all these kind of techniques.

So after the synthesis of the final product, it goes through a series of biological and immunological tests – assays – and the assay results will tell us what the activity of the compound is, and then of course we can relate activity to structure. So if we made several different compounds and one is more active and one is less active, we can draw sort of conclusions from that which parts of the molecule are active and then maybe redesign and get more feedback from the assays.