Research Profile: Lamees Hegazy

Published on 07 June 2021

Lamees Hegazy, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicinal chemistry in the Department of Pharmaceutical and Administrative Sciences at University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis, is a computational chemist who applies methods of computational and theoretical chemistry to rational drug design and biochemical problems.

Her research with the Center for Clinical Pharmacology integrates both applied and basic science components at the interface of chemistry, biology, physics, and pharmacology, with goals to bridge the interface between basic and clinical research.

“Computational chemistry uses physics-based algorithms to understand how molecules interact with each other,” Hegazy explained. “Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman famously said, ‘everything that living things do can be understood in terms of the jigglings and wigglings of atoms,’ and one of the main techniques I am using are molecular dynamics simulations which are based on Newton's equations to simulate the jiggling and wiggling motions of atoms and molecules. To me, it’s like looking in a microscope. These simulations can capture a wide variety of important bimolecular processes including ligand binding, protein folding and conformational changes. This is particularly useful in the drug discovery research we do here at the center.”

Hegazy notes that cells in our body have proteins called receptors that bind to signaling molecules. Each protein interacts with a molecule that specifically fits inside its pocket. When the molecule binds to a pocket inside the receptor, it causes a change in the shape of the receptor leading to a cascade of other changes and events inside the cell called signal transduction.

Using molecular simulations, Hegazy demonstrates how each molecule interacts with its receptor and how it changes its shape.

“This information is very important because it allows me to design molecules that specifically fit in the same pocket and behave the same,” said Hegazy.

Hegazy also uses another technique known as virtual screening which allows her to quickly search millions of compounds for molecules that can fit in the same receptor.

“The screening accelerates drug discovery research substantially because we can purchase and test molecules that fit into the binding pocket of the target, rather than purchasing and testing hundreds or thousands of compounds randomly,” noted Hegazy. “This cuts down on cost, time and effort substantially. Using these approaches, I was able to discover novel molecules that bind to important drug targets. Currently, I am working on integrating artificial intelligence approaches to further accelerate this process with the hope of getting some of these drugs to preclinical trials in few years.”

Hegazy began her career with a degree in biochemistry from Mansoura University in Mansoura, Egypt. She then earned her Ph.D. in computational chemistry from the University of Florida, where she was awarded outstanding achievement awards in 2009 and 2010. In 2017, Hegazy was selected to attend the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, a gathering of prestigious young scientists and researchers from around the world who are selected based on a rigorous application process.

She was recruited to join the faculty at the Center for Clinical Pharmacology by Thomas Burris, Ph.D., FAAAS, FAHA, Alumni Chair in Pharmaceutical Education and vice president for research at UHSP.

“At the center, I’m part of an interdisciplinary drug discovery team, and I use computer-aided drug design to model compounds that our medicinal chemists use to create and test new compounds, helping them to make significant discoveries in less time and with less cost than through more traditional methods,” Hegazy explained.

Hegazy notes her research work is crucial to Burris’ lab, as well as the labs of Bahaa Elgendy, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at UHSP, and Kristine Griffett, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology at UHSP, and other researchers at the center. Hegazy also collaborates with researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and around the world.

“Although the theories behind computational chemistry go back decades, the technology is still relatively new and changing rapidly,” Hegazy explained. “We can do many things now that we couldn’t do when I was in graduate school. There aren’t very many computational chemists around the world, but it’s an exciting field with great potential to develop more therapeutics faster and more efficiently than with traditional methods. Every year, more and more graduate students are interested in pursuing it, and it’s a growing field both in academia and in the pharmaceutical industry.”

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