Pedro Brandao, University of Coimbra & CQE – University of Évora, Portugal

Today, our #Iamamedicinalchemist is Pedro Brandao from the University of Coimbra & CQE – University of Évora, Portugal.

He believes Green Chemistry associated with Medicinal Chemistry is here to stay, and that chemoinformatics & artificial intelligence will play a major role in assisting future decision-making processes. Do you agree with him? 

Discover his full-story below!

How did you get interested in Medicinal Chemistry?

In high school, I was always very interested in Biology and Chemistry, so when I applied to the University, Pharmaceutical Sciences was my first option. During my MSc in Pharmaceutical Sciences (Faculty of Pharmacy – University of Porto), the curricular units that really caught my attention were Organic Chemistry, Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Drug Design and Synthesis. I felt really fascinated in understanding how drugs could reach and interact with disease targets. For this reason, as an undergraduate student, I joined the Laboratory of Organic and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, and worked under the supervision of Prof. Madalena Pinto in the enantiomeric purity evaluation of new chiral compounds. Furthermore, during the last semester of my MSc (2011), as an Erasmus student, I joined the Laboratory of Organic Chemistry at the University of Urbino “Carlo Bo”, developing work in asymmetric catalysis, under the supervision of Prof. Giovanni Zappia and Prof. Giovanni Piersanti. This was definitely a life-changing experience, which allowed me to further expand my horizons and knowledge, as well as to have a better understanding of the different challenges in Medicinal Chemistry. It also showed me how great it is to share a workplace with a multicultural team, with totally different backgrounds and mindsets, while sharing the same interests. It makes the brainstorming processes much more appealing, at least from my point of view. At this point in life, I decided that Medicinal Chemistry was the field in which I would like to give my contribution to society.

Where and when did you obtain your PhD diploma?

I am currently halfway through my PhD in Chemistry, in the field of Catalysis and Sustainability (CATSUS – Doctoral programme). As a student of this multidisciplinary program, I have three supervisors from three different institutions - University of Coimbra, University of Évora and Instituto Superior Técnico (Lisbon), allowing me to interact with multiple research groups throughout my PhD.

What was the topic of your PhD project?

The topic of my PhD project is the sustainable development of new oxindole derivatives with potential biological activity. My main goal is to develop new molecules with drug-like properties in a “Green by design” way. Oxindole derivatives are very interesting for Medicinal Chemists, with several molecules bearing this structural motif reaching clinical trials and even the market. I intend to develop new “drug candidates” using molecular hybridization and green synthetic procedures, in what concerns solvents, catalytic systems, and activation techniques.

Where do you work at the moment and what is your current position?

I am a PhD student in the CQC/Department of Chemistry – University of Coimbra & CQE – University of Évora, Portugal.

What are your current research interests?

My main focus is the synthesis of new molecules with drug-like properties. I always wanted to develop my work in the area where Medicinal Chemistry meets Green Chemistry, and I am lucky enough to be doing that during my PhD It is challenging and many times makes me think outside the box and explore fields which are out of my comfort zone…and that is exactly the type of challenge I am looking for at this point. Working with privileged structures, I really hope I will be able to find some interesting hit compounds during my PhD. By developing new compounds in a “Green by design” way, I think I will develop a mindset that will have increasingly demanded by industries, regulatory authorities, and academia. Early assessment of pharmacokinetic properties and toxicological features of new drug candidates is also very important to the drug discovery pipeline, and I expect to develop some work in this field as well.

What do you like most in your job?

The constant challenges and the opportunity to learn something new every day.

What kind of tasks your job includes?

At the moment, my main focus is the synthesis, purification and characterization of new compounds. My day-to-day job comprises reaction planning, execution, purification and characterization. Sometimes the results do not appear as quickly as I would expect, so I need to go back to the “drawing board” sometimes and rethink my approach.

What kind of skills your job requires?

Patience, perseverance and grit are mandatory, I would say. When our aim is to do something new, there is always some trial-error involved and sometimes that might turn out to be a little bit daunting. I believe organization skills are also very important to not allow a succession of failures to overwhelm us and to keep us focused in our goals.

What do you consider your biggest achievement in your scientific career?

I hope that moment is still to come. For now, I consider my biggest achievement every time I experience some kind of breakthrough in my lab work, especially when that happens after a succession of failures. It always gives me a very important boost of motivation to further develop my work and explore new tasks.

What are the features of a successful PhD student or postdoc?

As a PhD student, I think it is very important to keep my work well organized and a positive-attitude towards my goals. Despite luck sometimes also emerging as a relevant player during a PhD, a well designed project, combined with a lot of brainstorming and continuous planning are determining factors for a successful PhD.

How would you describe yourself as a supervisor?

Supervision is not one of my tasks as a PhD student. Nevertheless, I really enjoy brainstorming sessions with my supervisors and collaborators in the lab. Therefore, I believe if that time comes, as a supervisor, I will try to develop critical thinking as much as possible since I think that is the only way to achieve real scientific breakthroughs.

What is the most embarrassing thing you did in the lab while doing experiments, e.g. explosions?

Luckily, no explosions so far. Perhaps I am quite “consistent” in my lab work, but so far, I have not experienced any particularly embarrassing moment. However, a few years ago, I had the chance to cooperate in some in vivo assays using Wistar rats. It was great because I really needed to step out of my comfort zone and explore new fields and collaborations, but there were plenty of unusual situations. The most “embarrassing” moment would be perhaps, when we needed to euthanize the first animal. Although I worked multiple times with blood and other tissues, both during my degree and in my professional life as a pharmacist, everyone said I got really pale during that process…After the first animal, everything went smoothly as expected and desired.

Which scientist do you admire the most and why?

This is a very difficult question. I think it is very important to get inspired by those who work directly with you. Therefore, the supervisors I have today and I had in the past, my lab coworkers (and I already worked in multiple locations, so it is plenty of them), I somehow admire all of them, since they helped me to become the “scientist” I am today and to determine which kind of scientist I want to become in the future. Some by the passion they have for the field, others by their work ethics, others by their great knowledge transfer skills. Some by even allowing me to have a voice in the development of projects and to take part in some decision-making processes. Others, by simply showing me the kind of scientist I do not want to become.

In a totally different note, there is a scientist that, even though our fields barely overlap, whose approach to Science, and the way he addresses several (I would say) delicate topics in the scientific community are simply inspiring. He is Dr. John Tregoning, from the Department of Medicine – Imperial College London. He writes a blog about academic careers and already wrote opinion articles in several publications. I keep many of those in a folder with the title “motivation” in my laptop. If I would have to choose one of the articles which inspired me the most, I would say it was “No researcher is too junior to fix science” (Nature, 2017, vol. 545, 7), which I believe should be mandatory reading for any young scientist and first year’s PhD students.

Did you experience any unfair situations during your scientific career?

Unfortunately, I have experienced some unfair situations, but I always try to convert those unwanted situations into opportunities. Grit is definitely one of the most important characteristics of a scientist, and those situations helped me to understand the importance of perseverance and the passion I have for the field of Medicinal Chemistry. They helped me to develop healthy and strong work ethic, as well as to develop a good network of contacts.

Which paper of yours you are the proudest of and why?

I would say it is always the last one I publish. Nevertheless, I really enjoy writing review papers. The ones I had the chance to write so far, really allowed me to dwell into a certain topic and that is always how I learn the most about something. It is a great way to know what has been done and how, and it also can show us some opportunities on what there is still to be done in a certain field. It is also a great opportunity to cooperate with different scientists. Anyway, feel free to take a look in my google scholar or my researchgate profile.

Which field of medicinal chemistry do you consider the most promising in the future?

Well, I believe Green Chemistry associated with Medicinal Chemistry is here to stay. I think regulatory authorities will start to demand the application of the twelve principles as much as possible in both industries and R&D units. The depletion of resources, environmental concerns, and health hazards, will cause a shift in the way many sciences are performed, including Medicinal Chemistry. There will be less and less room for trial-error and a great deal of planning will be required. For that, I think chemoinformatics, as well as artificial intelligence, will play a major role in assisting in decision-making processes. Regarding the disease targets, I think the number of publications concerning new antibiotic drug candidates will increase dramatically, as the failure of current therapeutic options will become more evident due to resistance mechanisms. Ageing and chronic diseases are also topics that will continue to expand due to demographic and social pressure. In diseases such as cancer and other diseases in which the immune system plays a pivotal role, I think biological drugs might become first-line therapy in multiple diseases and overcome the use of small-molecules.