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A Chemistry experiment with test tubes

They are known as ‘kissing bugs’ and they spread a disease that rarely makes the headlines but infects up to seven million people worldwide.

Chagas disease is a tropical disease transmitted by insects which inflicts a huge burden in some of the poorest Latin American countries.

Now a worldwide network of scientists, led by Durham University, will work together to find new drug targets for this neglected disease.

They will also target leishmaniasis, a disease affecting the very poor in developing countries, transmitted by sandfly bites with over 700,000 new cases per year.


Identifying new drug targets

The researchers will use new chemical and genetic technologies to help discover targets that drugs could act upon – one of the most important scientific steps to enable a new drug to be developed.

They aim to improve on current drugs, some of which are hard to administer and have severe side effects.

The team has been awarded £8 million from Research Councils UK (RCUK) as part of its Global Challenges Research Fund to lead the network.

Coordinator of the network, Professor Graham Sandford from Durham’s Department of Chemistry, said: “Whilst there has been significant progress in the control and elimination of neglected tropical diseases in the last ten years, public health programmes are losing the battle against leishmaniasis and Chagas disease. Both diseases represent a huge challenge for Lower Middle Income Countries in endemic regions of South America, Africa and Asia.

“By enhancing the capabilities of 14 worldwide partner institutions we hope we can really transform the way modern genetic and chemical technologies can be focused on neglected tropical diseases.”

Paul Denny, Associate Professor in Durham’s Department of Biosciences and the network’s UK HUB leader highlights the importance of the project, not just in providing pathways to new drugs but also in providing a sustainable network of highly trained researchers. He said: "Robust validation of targets has been identified as a problem for the pharmaceutical industry, with millions spent on drug discovery programmes, e.g. for anti-cancer agents, which ultimately fail due to poor target identification.

“We will also train a generation of scientists to carry this work into the future and help alleviate the devastation caused by leishmaniasis and Chagas disease." 


Devastating impact

With over 350 million people worldwide considered at risk from leishmaniasis, and more than 20,000 deaths each year, as well as around seven million people suffering with Chagas disease in Latin America alone, the effect on health and well-being in these regions is devastating.

The two diseases result in serious illness, disability and fatalities across the affected countries.


Global approach

By working with endemic region partners across scientific disciplines in parasitology, chemistry, biophysics, biochemistry, and molecular and cellular biology, Durham University will lead the global network for tropical diseases bringing together over 50 academics located at 14 different institutes.

The network will work towards the common goal of delivering scientific advances that will feed the drug discovery pipeline providing the pharmaceutical industry with new validated drug targets for leishmaniasis and Chagas disease.

The initiative will also ensure that there is a sustainable global network of researchers who can continue to push forward research into neglected tropical diseases generally both in the UK and on the global stage.

Professor Nahid Ali from the Indian Institute for Chemical Biology in Kolkata commented: “Dynamic networking with different collaborators in the field of disease diagnosis, understanding the disease biology and therapeutics will help to manage these diseases leading to significant social and economic impact.”


Building on Durham’s strengths

Durham has a long and successful track record in supporting and encouraging collaboration between the Chemical and Biological Sciences particularly in the area of neglected tropical diseases and antimicrobials.

Dr Steven Cobb, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Durham University and Director of the Centre for Global Infectious Diseases, said: “The GCRF award is recognition of the exciting and cutting edge science that has been ongoing in this area in Durham for many years bringing researchers together from different disciplines to find solutions in the area of infectious diseases.”

The GCRF award complements other recent grant successes in the area of infectious diseases where around £1 million of funding has been awarded from the Royal Society (led Professor Patrick Steel and Professor Bartira Rossi-Bergmann at The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and the European Union (Virus-X led by Associate Professor Ehmke Pohl). 

Network coordinator for South America, Professor Ariel Silber from the University of São Paulo in Brazil, commented: “This initiative will lead to an ‘army’ of highly trained young scientists to drive forward the search for alternatives to the drugs currently in use for leishmaniasis and Chagas disease.”

The Research Councils UK Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is a 5-year £1.5Bn fund and a key component in the delivery of the UK Aid Strategy. The fund aims to ensure that UK research takes a leading role in addressing the problems faced by developing countries, and contributes to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The new Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases involves academics from the Department of Chemistry; Graham SandfordSteven Cobb, and Patrick Steel, and from the Department of Biosciences; Ehmke Pohl and Paul Denny.