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Targeting diseases beyond our borders

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity researchers recently returned from a four-​​day work­shop in Kenya, where they worked with local health experts to develop strate­gies for com­bating neglected trop­ical dis­eases (NTDs) throughout the African nation.

Prin­cipal inves­ti­gator Richard Wamai, an assis­tant pro­fessor of public health in African Amer­ican studies, and Michael Pol­lastri, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of chem­istry and chem­ical biology, led the work­shop, which is part of a larger inter­dis­ci­pli­nary global health study sup­ported by a grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research. Public health grad­uate stu­dent Alison Yoos and Gordon Ogembo, an adjunct pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Pro­fes­sional Studies and a post-​​doctoral researcher at Har­vard Med­ical School and Beth Israel Med­ical Dea­coness Center, also participated.

As part of the work­shop, North­eastern researchers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Uni­ver­sity of Nairobi, Kenya’s Min­istry of Health and the Kenya Med­ical Research Insti­tute dis­cussed ways to develop robust inter­ven­tion strate­gies to con­trol, treat and pre­vent NTDs.

More than 90 per­cent of the world’s known NTDs are found in African nations, of which more than half a dozen are con­sid­ered endemic in Kenya, according to Wamai. “This project is crit­ical to iden­tify research gaps that exist in Kenya,” he said.

The team also vis­ited one affected com­mu­nity and a health facility in the Rift Valley’s Baringo dis­trict, which serves as a regional referral center for diag­nosing and treating leish­ma­ni­asis, one of the three NTDs the team is targeting.

The poten­tially fatal dis­ease, which is trans­mitted by sand fly bites, has infected people in more than 20 Kenyan dis­tricts. One form of the dis­ease causes skin lesions, while another affects bodily organs and can be fatal without treatment.

Kenyans who live or play near dead anthills that attract sand flies are the most sus­cep­tible to con­tracting the dis­ease, Wamai said. As he puts it, “Seeing this was very impor­tant for us because we need to under­stand how the dis­ease inter­acts with the ecology, and what sys­tems are in place for treating them.”

Wamai and Pol­lastri say their inter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tion in public health and drug dis­covery will con­tinue to be the focus of sev­eral more research projects. One up-​​and-​​running pilot study includes the epi­demi­o­logic map­ping of leish­ma­ni­asis in Baringo.

Pollastri’s expe­ri­ence in Kenya changed his under­standing of trop­ical dis­eases. “For me, the field visit took a very hypo­thet­ical exer­cise in drug dis­covery and made it very real by meeting people who have the dis­ease and walk 50 kilo­me­ters to a hos­pital to get treat­ment,” said Pol­lastri, whose research at North­eastern focuses on early-​​stage drug dis­covery for neglected dis­eases. “It totally shifted my whole under­standing of this problem.”

– by Greg St. Martin

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