Natural products from the Amazon may help to treat neglected diseases

University of Dundee researchers have been awarded £700,000 to investigate whether bacteria and other natural products found in the Amazon hold the key to developing new drugs for neglected tropical diseases.

Dr Kevin Read at The Drug Discovery Unit at The University of Dundee. © Sophie Gerrard          

The Dundee team led by Professor Kevin Read, Dr Susan Wyllie and Professor Ian Gilbert  from the University’s Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infectives Research (WCAIR) will work with colleagues at the University São Paulo in Brazil to identify novel drug targets and develop new therapies for visceral leishmaniasis and Chagas disease.

The Medical Research Council (MRC)/Newton Fund grant will enable the WCAIR scientists, alongside collaborators in Brazil, to explore how small molecules isolated from bacterial symbionts of Amazonian insects can be exploited as potential treatments for these devastating diseases.
Specifically, the researchers will investigate the mechanisms by which these small molecules kill the parasites causing visceral leishmaniasis and Chagas disease. This information will then be used to develop more effective therapies.

“There is a severe lack of robustly validated and exploitable drug targets in the parasites that cause these diseases,” said Professor Read. “One way to hopefully address this gap in our knowledge is to identify the target of the more chemically diverse natural product molecules known to be active against the parasites.
“We will be working with a team from the University of São Paulo to utilise their skills and experience of working with natural products from the Amazon region. Here in Dundee we will bring our vast expertise in drug discovery to try and find novel drug targets and deliver new treatments for these two diseases.”

Visceral leishmaniasis kills tens of thousands of people every year, with some of the poorest countries in the world severely affected. The disease is caused by a parasite, which is spread through the bite of an infected sandfly. People infected with the disease suffer fever, weight loss and anaemia, and the disease is typically fatal unless treated.

Chagas disease affects around 6-8 million people in 21 endemic countries across the Americas. The disease is one of the leading causes of heart failure in Latin America as it is responsible for life-threatening heart damage if not treated early.

Professor Read added, “At the end of this research project, our outputs are likely to be highly validated drug targets and chemical start points derived from natural products.
“There will still be a long way to go from that point to new treatments available for visceral leishmaniasis and Chagas disease being available but we believe this is a valuable approach to solving the challenges posed by these neglected diseases that kill tens of thousands of people each year and blight the lives of millions more.”

The  grant also allows the WCAIR team to build on the training it provides. The Centre offers training places from 3-12 months to researchers from countries where neglected diseases are endemic. The researchers are mentored by the training team within the labs and have the opportunity to embed in existing WCAIR projects to develop all round expertise in drug discovery.