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Published: 2022-11-22

André Mateus researches the interaction between gut flora and drugs

PROFILE Driven by curiosity, André Mateus, at the Department of Chemistry, explores the very innermost parts of the body. He wants to investigate how drugs affect the gut microbiome and hopefully find new cures for diseases in the future. "If it works, it's extremely exciting," he says.

Text: Sara-Lena Brännström

We are basically vehicles that these bacteria use to get around. They play important roles in our health

André Mateus grew up in Lisbon, Portugal, and trained as a pharmacist. However, he realised early on that he wasn’t tailored to work behind a pharmacy counter for the rest of his life; he wanted to become a scientist and find out more about what drugs actually do in the body.  

Many of the medicines we use have to enter the body's cells to have their effect. During his PhD studies in Uppsala, André Mateus developed a method to measure how much of a drug actually reaches the inside of the cell, and which properties of the chemical compounds are crucial.

Identifies proteins

As a postdoc, André Mateus immersed himself in proteome profiling. This involves identifying which of the cell's perhaps thousands of proteins is the target of a particular drug. This is possible to investigate thanks to the fact that the protein changes its melting temperature when it interacts with the drug. The technique has previously been used on human cells but André Mateus developed it for use on bacteria.  

Now he wants to venture into the world of gut bacteria. As a new researcher at Umeå University, André Mateus has been awarded the very prestigious ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council: SEK 15 million for a research project that will start in 2023.  

"What fascinates me about the gut is that a lot of its bacterial species are very uncharacterized. The gut microbiome carries a very large number of genes. We are basically vehicles that these bacteria use to get around. They play important roles in our health," says André Mateus.  

Hopes to cure diseases

So far, very little is known about human gut bacteria. What we do know is that many diseases, such as diabetes, are now associated with the growth of a certain species of bacteria in the gut. We also know that some drugs affect the gut flora: antibiotics, for example – but also drugs for human targets, such as antidiabetics and antipsychotics. So the question is, what are the links between disease, drug and bacteria? Is it possible to cure a disease by reducing the amount of a particular type of bacteria in the gut?  

"If we find a drug that acts on a specific bacteria, then we can go in and test this hypothesis. Does the patient get better or was the change in the microbiome just a consequence of the disease and not a cause of it?" 

Thanks to the ERC grant, which extends over five years, André Mateus can now expand his research group and apply similar methods that he has used in the past to explore the interaction between drugs and gut flora. In the future, he hopes to move on to experiments on animals or humans and hopefully treat diseases.  

"My driving force is to understand how things work. I think that's one of the reasons why I like chasing proteins of unknown function, take them apart and see how they react and interact with each other. How can I potentially find an application for this? How can I use it to treat or diagnose a disease?" 

A niche to fill

He is also currently working on a research project, supported by the Swedish Research Council (VR), on how gut bacteria use complex sugars. Again, this involves proteins; identifying which of them ensure that sugar is taken into the cell, broken down and consumed.  

When André Mateus came to Umeå University, he felt there was a niche for him to fill alongside the other research groups. He believes there is a great competence in microbiology that he can benefit from.   

"I see great opportunities for collaboration," he says.