York awarded Global Challenges funding to tackle parasitic disease

Posted on 20 December 2016

Scientists at the University of York and Hull York Medical School have been awarded two new grants to tackle the parasitic disease leishmaniasis, as part of the new £1.5bn Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).

Funded by the GCRF through the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Foundation Awards (Infections) scheme, the research projects awarded to the Centre for Immunology and Infection represent two of 41 funded projects, aimed at improving the health and prosperity of millions of people in low and middle income countries (LMICs).

Leishmaniasis is spread by the bite of sand flies, and is a severely neglected poverty-related disease, affecting the health of people in over 98 countries. Some forms of the disease are fatal without treatment, whereas others cause significant scarring, leading to reduction in life chances, stigmatisation and social exclusion, particularly for children and females.

Visceral Leishmaniasis (VL) is the most severe form of the disease, responsible for approximately 20,000 deaths each year mostly in East Africa, South Asia and Brazil. The only available oral drug – miltefosine - is used effectively in India; however it has been shown to be ineffective in clinical trials in Brazil.

In the first project, new research will investigate how variations in the genome of Brazilian strains of the parasite might make them less susceptible to miltefosine.  As well as biting humans, sand flies also feed on a variety of plants. A second aim of the study is to determine whether natural products found in local Brazilian trees can affect drug resistance by selecting parasite genetic variants within the sand fly.

Jeremy Mottram, Professor of Pathogen Biology and lead investigator for the study, said: "350 million people are at risk of contracting leishmaniasis, and it has severe costs in both health and economic terms, draining resources that could be used to promote the growth of developing nations. There is no effective vaccine against the disease and chemotherapy is currently the prime treatment.

“This exciting collaboration builds on an existing partnership with Professor Carlos Costa in the Federal University of Piaui in Teresina, Brazil. Additional expertise from Professor Ian Graham at York and Professor Monique Simmonds of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, will help identify and map plants and natural-product containing trees that may affect drug resistance.

“By understanding how the environment in which the parasite lives influences its susceptibility to drugs and the molecular mechanisms of drug resistance, we hope to be able to develop new intervention strategies to combat visceral leishmaniasis in Brazil.”

In the second project, York scientists will work with the Universities of Sao Paulo in Brazil and Sri Jayewardenepura in Sri Lanka, and with the Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research (IPGMER) in India, to understand the basis for variability of treatment response in cutaneous leishmaniasis across different countries, introducing “digital pathology” to facilitate the sharing of clinical data across different countries. York’s Centre for Health Economics will also undertake an initial evaluation of the potential added value of this new technology.

Paul Kaye, Professor of Immunology at Hull York Medical School and lead investigator for the study, said: “This award lays the foundation for a step change in how research and training in pathology is applied to neglected diseases. It will add considerable value to the clinical samples that are generously donated by patients for research.  By understanding why some patients respond to treatment and others do not, we can make better use of the drugs that we have available and reduce the costs and suffering associated with treatment failures.”  

Professor Deborah Smith, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, said: “These awards are a testament to the quality of research undertaken in the Centre for Immunology and Infection and excellent examples of the internationally competitive research being undertaken by the University within its strategic research theme of Health and Wellbeing.”

Link to University press page