Public Release: 

MSU researcher awarded $2 million to tackle parasitic tropical diseases

Researcher attempts to eradicate elephantiasis, river blindness

Michigan State University

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- In an effort to eliminate the tropical diseases elephantiasis and river blindness, a Michigan State University researcher has been awarded $2 million to reformulate an existing drug that could stop the debilitating diseases in their tracks.

Charles Mackenzie, a professor of veterinary pathology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, was awarded the funding via a larger $13 million grant the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Elephantiasis (lymphatic filariasis) and river blindness (onchocerciasis) -- known as filarial diseases, in which the body is infected with parasitic worms -- afflict about 140 million people worldwide, doing much of its damage in equatorial Africa.

Elephantiasis, caused by tiny worms spread via mosquitoes, results in severe swelling of the legs, arms and torso. River blindness is spread by black flies, and after the parasitic worms die in a person's eye, can cause blindness and debilitating skin disease.

Mackenzie, who has been studying filarial diseases for more than 30 years and has done extensive work in Tanzania and Ecuador, is focusing on flubendazole. The drug was used in the 1980s with good results against filarial worms when it was injected in animals and humans. However, the injections caused severe abscesses and lost effectiveness outside of the digestive system.

"We think the oil the drug was dissolved in before administering it may have caused the reactions," Mackenzie said. "We are working now to develop a new way to safely administer this medicine."

Since the medicine targets the adult parasitic worms so well, Mackenzie is confident that developing a safe way to deliver it would have a huge impact.

"The technology we have today is leaps and bounds ahead of what we were using in the 1980s," he said. "If we can reformulate the drug and easily administer it, we can make meeting the World Health Organization's goal of eradicating filarial diseases a reality."

MSU, Washington University, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and McGill University in Montreal are all working on projects with funding from the grant and together form the Filariasis University Consortium. In addition to the work Mackenzie is doing at MSU with cooperation from McGill, the overall grant will fund two other projects:

*Researchers at Washington University will test the costs and benefits of twice-yearly mass drug administration versus the currently standard annual treatment. The project will include two regions in equatorial Africa where persons with lymphatic filariasis also may be infected with another filarial worm that previously prevented mass drug administration programs from occurring. MSU along with its Tanzanian colleagues will be part of these field trials.

*Scientists at Case Western will conduct two clinical trials of different treatments for lymphatic filariasis and one trial of new treatments for onchocerciasis. The scientists will take existing drugs and give them in different doses and combinations to see if they are more effective than current treatments.

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The research teams work closely with pharmaceutical firms GlaxoSmithKline and Merck, both of which have donated millions of dollars worth of medicine. The entire effort, in coordination with the World Health Organization, the ministries of health in more than 80 countries and dozens of private and public donors and researchers, hope to eliminate filarial diseases by 2020.

Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.

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