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September 12, 2008 4:32 am

New drug for parasitic diseases developed

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Researchers on Thursday heralded “probably the biggest breakthrough in tropical medicine in 25 years” with the development of what is believed to be an effective cure for diseases that affect 150m people in the developing world.

Mark Taylor, professor of parasitology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said they have developed a new treatment for elephantiasis and river blindness. The treatment is undergoing clinical trials in Cameroon and Ghana.

The Carter Centre estimates that parasitic elephantiasis, a debilitating skin disease, causes an annual economic loss of about $1bn to India alone. Around 18m people worldwide are infected with river blindness, 300,000 of whom have permanently lost their sight.

A single parasite is responsible for the two diseases.

Prof Taylor told the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool that drug resistant forms of the parasite are beginning to emerge and new treatments are urgently needed.

Existing drug therapies for these diseases provide only temporary relief and kill only juvenile worms, leaving the adults to reproduce. As a result, the symptoms recur typically every six to nine months. People with elephantiasis and river blindness need to take these drugs for 35 years on average.

“Getting rid of river blindness in areas of west Africa using these drugs and insecticides has been effective, but enormously costly,” said Prof Taylor. “Because of the environmental damage caused by pesticides, that approach now can't be used.”

The new treatment, developed at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, offers hope of a lasting cure. It uses antibiotics to target bacteria that the parasitic worms use to reproduce. Killing the bacteria sterilises the worms, ending the infection.

Prof Taylor said: “The fact that we are able to use simple, cheap antibiotics that are already available in these epidemic areas is very important.”

The new drug needs to be taken for four to six weeks to be effective, making it difficult to administer in remote areas.

Prof Taylor’s team is looking for drugs that can be taken in combination with the antibiotics to shorten the time needed for the treatment. “We’re currently using funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to translate this into an effective public health tool,” he said.

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