A bright future for infectious disease research

by Angela Herring

Every year, nearly a mil­lion people die from one of three infec­tious dis­eases that few of us have ever heard of. There are no vac­cines for them and only a handful of out­dated, inad­e­quate, and often toxic drugs are avail­able for treating them.

Chagas dis­ease, leish­ma­ni­asis, and African sleeping sick­ness are all caused by pro­to­zoan par­a­sites called try­panosomes. Malaria, which kills hun­dreds of thou­sands of people annu­ally, most under the age of five, is caused by a dif­ferent pro­to­zoan par­a­site. Other global infec­tious dis­eases are caused by viruses, like HIV and dengue fever, or by bac­teria, like tuberculosis.

In a spe­cial pre­sen­ta­tion hosted by the Office of the Provost, the Col­lege of Sci­ence, the Col­lege of Engi­neering, and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­encesSeattle Bio­med­ical Research Insti­tute founder and North­eastern alumnus Ken Stuart dis­cussed the institute’s cur­rent sci­en­tific approach to con­fronting and learning from these global infec­tious dis­eases, which, he said, pri­marily affect the poor.

In the nearly 40 years since its estab­lish­ment, the insti­tute has gone from fewer than 20 employees to nearly 400. The non­profit orga­ni­za­tion aims to pre­vent and alle­viate global infec­tious dis­eases while also advancing bio­log­ical under­standing of the pathogens that cause them. “It’s astounding to me what has been learned about try­panosomes since I started working on them,” said Stuart, who grad­u­ated North­eastern in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in biology.

The try­panosomes and malaria have a few things in common, Stuart explained. They are com­plex organ­isms all trans­mitted by insects, and they’re highly adapted to the host. Seattle BioMed’s goal for the try­panosomes is to develop better drugs. For malaria, the goal is to develop vaccines.

In his talk, Stuart also dis­cussed the process of drug dis­covery and devel­op­ment, which first requires a solid under­standing of how the organ­isms work. “The inherent beauty of the com­plexity of these organ­isms is just astounding,” he said. “As you learn more and more, you find there are many more layers of com­plexity. And it’s all interesting.”

In con­junc­tion with North­eastern chem­istry pro­fessor Michael Pol­lastri, Stuart’s team is working to iden­tify existing drugs that can be repur­posed for Chagas dis­ease, leish­ma­ni­asis, and African sleeping sick­ness. The insti­tute has also part­nered with Northeastern’s grad­uate campus in Seattle to leverage the two insti­tu­tions’ com­pli­men­tary resources.

Stuart pre­sented some promising results from his team’s research on both malaria and Chagas dis­ease. “Progress is accel­er­ating,” he said. “But there’s a con­certed and coor­di­nated effort that’s needed to really bring this to fruition.” Through col­lab­o­ra­tions like those between Seattle BioMed and North­eastern, the future is bright for global infec­tious dis­ease research, he said.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on March 15, 2013.

College of Science