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Duquesne chemist's pain, addiction research supplied by the ocean

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Kevin Tidgewell, 31, a new professor at Duquesne University, poses for a portrait in his new lab on campus Uptown on Thursday, October 25, 2012. Tidgewell nearly drowned as a child, but his passion to search the deep for compounds that might hold the promise of treating addiction or curing chronic pain led him to conquer his fear of water and don scuba gear. Tidgewell dives in Panama and collects molecules for his research in Pittsburgh.

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Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, 8:51 p.m.

Although his lab is at land-locked Duquesne University, medicinal chemist Kevin Tidgewell is counting on the ocean to provide raw materials for his research into pain and addiction.

Tidgewell, who relocated to Pittsburgh this fall, has spent the past two years in Panama, diving underwater sites in the Pacific and Caribbean to scour the sea for cyanobacteria.

The family of single-celled organisms is best known for algae blooms that cause so-called red tides. But Tidgewell, 31, is among a growing legion of researchers nationwide studying the filament-like organisms for natural compounds that could hold the key to new treatments for malaria, cancer, various neurological diseases and more.

“It's growing every day,” he said, adding that a former colleague is working to synthesize enough of a promising anticancer compound to start animal studies.

Tidgewell, who splits his time at Duquesne between the classroom and the lab, said he'll continue diving off Panama, in Central America. But he will concentrate his work gathering samples into weeklong expeditions once or twice a year, rather than the monthly dives he made as a post-doctoral researcher for the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

“Everyone thinks the dives are glamorous, but you're up every day at 6 a.m., doing three or four dives a day and then spending three or four hours a night processing samples,” Tidgewell said.

After gathering and processing his specimens, Tidgewell will return to Duquesne to use nuclear magnetic resonance imaging and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry instruments to analyze the compounds. Identifying what makes a compound react with a cancer cell or a pain receptor is “like putting a puzzle together,” Tidgewell said.

The researcher, who did his doctoral work in pain and addiction at the University of Iowa, said he became interested in the potential of natural marine products during a post-doctoral fellowship at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego.

Tidgewell is specifically looking for marine compounds that might offer new treatments for addiction or pain. He said marine discoveries, such as zicontinide, a pain medicine synthesized from the Australian cone snail, point to the possibility that many more marine compounds could address pain and addiction.

But beginning the search meant Tidgewell had to overcome a morbid fear of water.

“I almost drowned in a backyard Jacuzzi when I was 2. I hated the water, hated the ocean,” he said, adding that he nearly “freaked out” the first time he went underwater in scuba gear in a pool.

It's evident Tidgewell overcame his fear. He can be seen in a YouTube clip ( diving off the coast of Panama. A segment of Stephen Hawking's “Brave New World” series about emerging science featured the dive.

Tidgewell said that Duquesne's School of Pharmacy, although hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, is a good fit for him because of the focus on neuropharmacology and pain and its pain consortium.

He stressed that there are no shortcuts to solutions. It can take 10 to 17 years to find and test a compound, take it through animal and human testing and get it to market, he said.

“But if I find something that helps us understand pain or addiction or cancer better, that's just as good as finding a drug,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996.

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