UNC receives $21.3 million Gates Foundation grant

CHAPEL HILL -- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has received a $21.3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop effective, inexpensive drugs to treat late-stage African sleeping sickness and visceral leishmaniasis diseases that infect and kill hundreds of thousands of people in developing nations.

The grant supports the work of an international consortium led by Dr. Richard Tidwell, a professor in UNC's Schools of Medicine and Pharmacy and principal investigator for the project.

"The latest funding by the Gates Foundation provides us a unique opportunity to bring about substantial and lasting therapies for these deadly neglected diseases," Tidwell said.

Regina Rabinovich, president of the Gates Foundation's Infectious Disease Program, said, "Dr. Tidwell and his colleagues have already made important progress in developing new tools for these neglected diseases. We hope that their work will inspire other researchers to focus greater attention on these and other overlooked diseases that continue to afflict millions of people in the world's poorest countries."

The latest Gates Foundation grant will be used to pursue four specific goals:

  • Develop a new oral drug to treat African sleeping sickness (rypanosomiasis) in patients suffering from the disease's second stage, in which the central nervous system is affected.
  • Develop a new oral drug for treating visceral leishmaniasis.
  • Evaluate, validate and co-develop drug candidates from outside the consortium for both African sleeping sickness and visceral leishmaniasis.
  • Conduct a thorough and accurate assessment of the current status of African sleeping sickness, to aid in the development of a global access plan to ensure that new drugs are used most effectively in future disease control programs.

UNC has received two previous Gates grants for research on neglected diseases, one in May 2006 for $22.6 million, and another in December 2000 for $15.1 million. The consortium led by Tidwell is conducting a Phase III clinical trial of an oral drug for treating stage one African sleeping sickness with an oral drug called pafuramidine maleate, also known as DB289. If approved, it would be the first new drug for stage one African sleeping sickness in more than 50 years.

African sleeping sickness is passed from human to human by tsetse fly bites. It produces fever and lymph node inflammation, eventual impairment of the brain and nervous system in the late stage and, if not treated, death. The World Health Organization estimates more than 300,000 people are infected, and more than 60 million people in African countries including Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan are at risk.

Leishmaniasis is caused by a parasite that can live in people, dogs and rodents. Spread by the bites of tiny sand flies, the disease causes lesions, severe disfigurement and, when the parasites invade internal organs, death. An estimated 12 million people in 88 countries worldwide have the disease, of which approximately 500,000 are internal organ infections. Most cases are reported in developing nations; Sudan and India have been especially hard-hit by a recent outbreak.

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About the Consortium
The consortium's advisory board is chaired by UNC's Dr. Frederick Sparling, with Dr. Terry Shapiro at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Ann Moore at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Thomas Brewer of the Gates Foundation as board members. Those involved in the discovery of new drug candidates include Drs. David Boykin and David Wilson at Georgia State University; Dr. Michael Barrett at the University of Glasgow; Dr. Grace Murilla at the Kenya Trypanosomiasis Research Institute; Drs. Steven Meshnick and J. Ed Hall of UNC's Schools of Public Health and Pharmacy, respectively; Dr. Karl Werbovitz at Ohio State University; Dr. Dennis Kyle at the University of South Florida; and Dr. Reto Brun at the Swiss Tropical Institute.


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