School of Medicine gets grant to study river blindness

| Staff Reporter

The Washington University School of Medicine has received a five-year, $13 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to research possible cures for lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness.

According to Gary Weil, medical school professor and the principal investigator for the project, lymphatic filariasis is present in 81 countries around the world. It is most common in Africa and Pacific Island nations.

The infection develops in the blood of infected insects, such as mosquitoes and flies, which then transmit lymphatic filariasis or river blindness to humans. Of the 1.3 billion people living in these areas, 120 million are infected.

River blindness occurs through black fly bites when the infection reaches the eyes, blinding the infected party. The life cycle of the parasites must go through the flies before infecting the human.

“We have a treatment that is a one-day treatment that reduces the symptoms but does not cure them,” Weil said.

Although some treatments already exist, Weil stressed the need for stronger cures. The drugs currently available can clear the parasites from the blood and skin, but cannot kill the adult parasites.

The laboratory at Wash. U. has developed a test to detect the infection and reagents for the test, according to Weil. This test has been used to map the locations where the infection exists.

According to Weil, the treatments available are able to cure river blindness. Lymphatic filariasis, however, still remains a problem that the project hopes to cure.

“The Gates Foundation has a big program in global health,” Weil said. “In the past few years, they have gotten more interested in the group in global health beyond tuberculosis, HIV and malaria. They have begun to look at some of the other diseases that are out there.”

All of the mentioned diseases can be controlled with medicine.

“These are diseases where we can make an impact with our existing knowledge,” Weil said. “Right now, we do not have a simple cure for tuberculosis or HIV. The United States government and the Gates Foundation decided to focus more on these neglected tropical diseases, where we can do some real good short term while we wait for people to make the breakthrough discoveries that we need to treat these more fatal diseases,”

Other universities which received the grant include Case Western Reserve University, Michigan State University and McGill University.

According to Weil and the University’s news release, there are three main objectives over the five-year period of the contract.

The first objective, planned through Wash. U., will investigate the possibility of biannual treatments of the infection, instead of the current annual treatments. The project will attempt to figure out whether such treatment will be cost-effective in the long run.

The second objective will, according to the news release, “conduct two clinical trials of different treatments for lymphatic filariasis and one trial of new treatments for [river blindness].” This research will be managed at Case Western Reserve.

“This objective will take existing drugs and give them in different doses and combinations to see if they’re more effective than the current treatments,” Weil said in the news release.

The final objective, to be managed at Michigan State University, will involve trying to use flubendazole, which had been originally developed in the 1970s as a way to curb infections against filarial worm. Unfortunately, this treatment has caused harsh reactions in patients, so the investigators for the project hope to be able possibly to use this drug in treatments.

The project will be an international effort—while much of the planning will take place in North America, the actual execution of the plans and experiments will be done internationally in infected areas. The main goal for the project is to find a cure by 2020.

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