Targeting diseases beyond our borders

Courtesy photo.

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.”