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Innovative vision of pharmacology

Sérgio Henrique Ferreira became famous for his research into medications to fight hypertension and pain and was president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science

Ferreira: always concerned about the mechanisms of action of drugs and about Brazilian science

Matuiti Mayezo / Folhapress Ferreira: always concerned about the mechanisms of action of drugs and about Brazilian scienceMatuiti Mayezo / Folhapress

In November 2010, at age 76, pharmacologist Sérgio Henrique Ferreira expressed his gratitude to fellow pharmacologist Maurício Rocha e Silva, his doctoral adviser at the Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine (FMRP) of the University of São Paulo (USP). “It was Rocha e Silva who taught me to look at things carefully,” he said during a break at a conference in Rio de Janeiro. Ferreira, age 81, died July 17, 2016 in Ribeirão Preto.

A native of the São Paulo city of Franca and graduate of the USP School of Medicine, Ferreira, at 31, isolated the peptides of jararaca venom that are capable of inhibiting an enzyme that degrades bradykinin, a hormone that reduces blood pressure. Ferreira wrote an article describing his discovery and included the name of his advisor, Rocha e Silva, who had discovered bradykinin, thinking he would co-sign it. Rocha e Silva crossed off his own name: “If I go in on it, no one will believe that you did it yourself.”

Discovery of the so-called Bradykinin Potentiating Factor prompted the US company Bristol-Myers Squibb to develop a new class of drugs against high blood pressure, released as Captopril. “Sérgio was perhaps the only Brazilian whose experiments, carried out completely in Brazil, enabled the creation of a class of drugs,” says pharmacologist Fernando Cunha, who moved from Rio de Janeiro to pursue a doctoral degree with Ferreira in 1983 before being hired as professor at FMRP four years later.

Ferreira lived in England with his wife Maria Clotilde Rossetti Ferreira and three children on two different occasions. From 1964 to 1967 and from 1970 to 1973 he did post-doctoral research stints at the Royal College of Surgeons of England with pharmacologist John Vane, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1982. During his second stint with Vane, he studied the mechanism of action of acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin), which, as he noted, inhibits the synthesis of prostaglandins, the molecules that reduce the sensitivity of neurons associated with pain.  From 1974 to 1975, he worked at Wellcome Research, an institution associated with the pharmaceutical company Wellcome Laboratories.

Resourceful and demanding
In other research, Ferreira determined that morphine, in addition to its effects on the central nervous system, also has a peripheral analgesic effect, which he called teleantagonism (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 155). “As professor and researcher at the FMRP, he was quite resourceful and demanding with regard to the quality of work by the team,” says Janetti Nogueira de Francischi, professor at the Institute of Biological Sciences of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (ICB-UFMG) who worked with him from 1977 to 1985, while pursuing her master’s and doctoral degrees.  “He always encouraged us to keep moving forward.”

Ferreira was actively involved in science policy discussions in Brazil, mainly while serving as president of the SBPC for two terms from 1995 to 1999. “Fifty years ago, we were thinking about establishing FAPESP, CNPq and graduate studies, institutions that are now going strong.  What’s our strategy for the next 50 years?” he asked in 2010, concerned as always about the course of Brazilian science.