A new study funded by an almost $2 million grant will explore whether a potentially harmful chemical compound can be effective against infectious diseases like tuberculosis.

The five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health looks specifically at nitric oxide, which forms the foundation of smog and acid rain. The human body produces the molecule to regulate blood pressure or to deter infection. The bacteria that cause tuberculosis are particularly adept at evading the human immune system, even surviving nitric oxide bursts released by the immune system that would kill other bacteria.

Several enzymes help to keep tuberculosis from being easily controlled by the immune system. Studying how these enzymes function could lead to cures for the disease. Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jonathan Caranto is pursuing the project in collaboration with Professor Victor Davidson and Associate Professor Kyle Rohde at the UCF Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences.

The project will also look at the role of nitric oxide in other human health concerns and its potential to aid in producing human therapeutics.

“The most exciting part about this project is how applicable the chemistry is and how wide the impact is,” Caranto says. “There are so many ways we can use this information to better understand not only infectious bacteria, but also the process of neurodegeneration, and engineering of enzymes to help synthesize drugs. All of this using a compound we never really considered useful in this sense.”

“We hope to understand the reactivity of nitric oxide that makes it toxic to also contribute to the healing process,” he says.

Caranto is an expert on nitric oxide, something he notes that he’s never been able to evade in his many years in academia.

He worked on nitric oxide reductases during graduate school at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and he worked on nitric oxide producing enzymes, cytochrome P460 and hydroxylamine oxidoreductase, during a postdoctoral position at Cornell University.

“Nitric oxide fascinates me because I cannot escape it,” Caranto says. “The same way the wand in Harry Potter chose him, this compound chose me. There is so much more to learn and understand, and this opportunity given to us by the NIH is the perfect way to further understand the biochemistry of this molecule.”