A joint effort against the Oriental boil

02/04/04

DFG supports a trilateral project of German, Israeli and Palestinian scientists

This release is also available in German.

Leishmaniasis is a disease with many names. In the Mediterranean region, where it frequently occurs, it is also known as the Aleppo or Oriental boil. It is caused by various species of leishmania (parasites) and results in very different clinical presentations. In all cases the consequences are severe tissue damage of the skin or the internal organs. With the support of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), a trilateral research unit composed of German, Israeli and Palestinian doctors, biologists and ecologists has been studying the causative agents of leishmania, possible transmission pathways and remedies for the past five years. Despite partially difficult external circumstances, the interdisciplinary research in the Near East was successful: It has already yielded a series of results that can contribute to combating the disease.

The Oriental boil, the symptom of the ancient infectious disease called leishmaniasis cutis (cutaneous leishmaniasis), is hardly known in Germany. In contrast, in many countries of Asia and South America leishmaniasis occurs frequently; its incidence has even been increasing in the Near East and India over the past few years. The main vector of the disease is the two-millimetre long sand fly. A single bite is sufficient to cause an infection. A vaccine or medicinal preventive care is not yet available. Treatment of leishmaniasis is difficult: It is associated with side effects and is expensive which means that it cannot be afforded by poor patients.

In Israel and the Palestinian areas three species of leishmaniasis-causing agents occur which present different clinical pictures and are associated with different vectors and hosts. In 1998 a project funded by the DFG began in which scientists from Germany, Israel and the Palestinian areas are jointly studying this disease. The project is coordinated by Professor Werner Solbach of the Institute for Medical Microbiology and Hygiene at the Medical University of Lübeck, the Israeli researcher Alon Warburg, Professor at the Kuvin Centre for Research in Infectious and Tropical Diseases at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Palestinian molecular biologist Ziad Abdeen of the Al Quds University in Jerusalem.

As a result of this project, new findings have come to light so far that, according to Werner Solbach, could not have been accomplished in Germany. One the one hand, this is due to the broad participation of scientists from different disciplines. The working group includes researchers in entomology, dermatology, molecular biology, microbiology, ecology and veterinary medicine. On the other hand, the causative agents, hosts, vectors and patients necessary for conducting the research are only available locally. At the beginning of their work, the scientists first had to determine exact numbers for the distribution of the causative agents and the affected animal and human hosts. Within the scope of the examinations - also participated in by the Humboldt University of Berlin and the University of Bethlehem - a new and very sensitive detection method for the causative agents was established. Furthermore, it was also possible to identify previously unknown animal hosts and vectors, another important prerequisite for combating the disease. However, of special significance is the realization that the destruction of natural ecosystems through agriculture and the construction of new settlements promotes the spread of leishmaniasis. Irrigation measures lead to more luxuriant vegetation which in turn results in increased numbers of hosts and vectors. The geopolitical situation in the crisis region of the Near East therefore also contributes to the spread of leishmaniasis.

Aside from the scientific knowledge obtained, the cooperation also has yielded an additional positive result. "An objective of the project was also to promote a personal exchange among the scientists," said Solbach - the German project coordinator. And in fact the collaboration has led to a better understanding of the participants among themselves. Along with the intensive training of young researchers, this presents a good basis for future research.

The maximum possible funding period of five years, which applies to this programme, expires for the Leishmaniasis Project this spring. Werner Solbach and his colleagues hope to find follow-up financing from another organization. In addition to clarifying additional scientific questions, Solbach would also like to launch a health policy initiative focused on preventing the disease. However, the professor from Lübeck concedes that other priorities exist in the region that is plagued by terrorist attacks (e.g., gunshot wounds are a bigger problem than leishmaniasis).

Since 1995 the DFG has funded a special programme to promote German, Israeli and Palestinian collaboration whose purpose it is to support and strengthen the desire for peace and cooperation in the region. The special programme is highly valued by the partners in the Near East: It offers the sole possibility of freely accessible financing for the Palestinians. Although the Israeli universities are financed by the state, they rely on third party funds to a significant degree. Since the programme's inception, 25 projects have been funded. Of these, 17 have been completed and an additional 18 are in various stages of preparation. The majority of the projects funded so far have been in the fields of medicine, biology and agricultural science, some have also been in the humanities and the social sciences as well as the geological sciences and physics. A total of 21.5 million euros have been spent on this programme. Because of the political uncertainties, it was temporarily discontinued in April 2001. In the meantime the number of new applications has once again approached the previous average value. A total of 17 proposed applications are already available for the next round of funding; a two-stage selection process will decide the funding.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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