A UNIVERSITY network exploring tropical diseases is working to share knowledge in order to tackle two disfiguring diseases

Dr Mags Leighton, Project Manager of the global Durham University-led Neglected Tropical Diseases Network, and the University’s Department of Chemistry, outlines how an equal approach to sharing scientific expertise and resources is needed to tackle these diseases.

"It’s November 2019 at Jinnha Hospital, Karachi, and in Dr Barham Khoso’s clinic the human reasons behind our research into Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) are suddenly clear.

"Before us stand four children whose faces bear sores and scarring from cutaneous leishmaniasis. These siblings were infected whilst visiting their grandparents’ rural village.

"We hear how their teachers denied them entry to school due to fears of infection spread, even though the sandflies that spread this parasitic disease are not present here in the city.

"In future, the stigma of these disfigurements could similarly exclude them from opportunities for education, employment, even marriage. Current treatment involves painful injections of pentavalent antimony (a toxic chemotherapy drug) directly into the sores.

"For three patients, the infections are subsiding, but one child’s sores remain."

Dr Khoso explains to us: “We need effective, safe drugs as creams or in tablet form; treatments that target this disease directly, that our patients can endure…that our country can afford.”

"I am here in Karachi with Professor Paul Denny, of Durham’s Department of Biosciences and Director of the University-led NTD Network, an international consortium seeking new solutions to leishmaniasis and Chagas disease.

"These NTDs are familiar to our colleagues from endemic areas in Asia and South America. Approximately, over one billion people are at risk from leishmaniasis and Chagas disease, which together infect more than two million and kill approximately 10,000 people each year. "Cutaneous forms of leishmaniasis destroy the lives of approximately a further 40 million survivors through social stigma.

"Decades of research ‘neglect’ has resulted in a lack of effective diagnostics, vaccines and patient-friendly drugs for these NTDs.

"The ‘losing battle’ against cutaneous leishmaniasis has worsened in Pakistan and elsewhere since Covid-19 measures have diverted resources away from ‘non-emergency’ services including cutaneous leishmaniasis outpatient care."

The NTD Network’s international collaboration involves multidisciplinary teams from 13 institutions In Asia, South America and the UK.

“It is through the equitable partnering of scientific expertise and resources from both the developing and developed world that we will find sustainable solutions to these diseases,” says Professor Denny, who is also head of the Durham Centre for Global Infectious Diseases and a member of the University’s Department of Biosciences.

“Closer, equal collaborations are vital to tackle current inequalities, and offer us potential routes to change the lives of millions of people.”

"Since solutions for leishmaniasis and Chagas disease will take many years to achieve, the NTD Network programme has included workshops training more than 100 early career researchers from endemic areas with the necessary specialist laboratory skills to continue this vital research.

"Recent UK government cuts to Overseas Development Aid means that our research programme faces an uncertain future."

The NTD Network team is now seeking new funding sources, but Professor Denny’s deepest concerns are for the next generation of researchers, many of whom, without continued employment, must change career.

Professor Denny adds: “An equal approach, plus investment in our early career scientists, is vital to address the under-appreciated threat to our global health security from neglected tropical diseases.”

You can read more about the Durham University-led NTD Network at www.ntd-network.org.

An animation about cutaneous leishmaniasis, which explains what millions of sufferers endure in tropical areas worldwide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIbQ7PnrDNk

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