Neglected diseases get much-needed attention

Imagine being struck by a deadly disease and your main hospital treatment consists of a quarantine to prevent further transmission and a two-year toxic treatment process – all this with no guarantee of a cure. Sadly, this is the case for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis sufferers in many areas of the world. 

Neglected global diseases affect the daily lives of more than a billion people in many of the poorest countries of the world. And increasingly, as more low-income countries, like India and China, become middle-income, large pockets of its poorest citizens suffer in larger numbers.  There is often little financial incentive to developing treatments and preventative approaches to these diseases, and social and political barriers to their implementation. As a result, their impact continues to be devastating and contributes to a cycle of poverty. The Neglected Global Diseases Initiative at UBC (NGDI) is helping to reverse this pattern of neglect.

The NGDI was established at UBC in 2009 and recognized that tackling these diseases is a complex task, requiring collaboration across multiple disciplines to battle both medical and socio-economic issues.  By creating a network of researchers in a variety of fields—from science and engineering, to economics, law, and business—NGDI  researchers are both discovering and developing important new treatments, and also creating mechanisms that could allow these interventions to be delivered to those most in need at fair, affordable prices.

The NGDI provides support to its members by:

  1. advocating for its member’s accomplishments,
  2. providing a network of expertise,
  3. convening research meetings and educational conferences, and
  4. being a mobilizing entity for multidisciplinary team grants.

The ability to present a cohesive approach to treating diseases, from conception of the interventions to the final use in afflicted individuals is one of the defining characteristics of NGDI.

Neglected global diseases are infectious diseases and other conditions that disproportionally affect the poorest of the world’s populations. They include: HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, a list of 18 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and various conditions of maternal, infant, newborn and child health. Led by Dr. Richard Lester, whose own WelTel program is increasing the adherence to HIV treatment programs in Africa, NGDI researchers are tackling a significant number of these diseases. A sample of these projects include:

  • Dr. Robert Hancock’s pioneering work in overcoming microbial resistance to antibiotics is particularly relevant in developing countries and has been paramount in creating new therapeutic approaches to malaria, and potentially a wide array of other infectious diseases. Another key area of his work has rewritten the book on sepsis, a disease that kills up to 6 million people per year. Treating serious sepsis is reliant on a quick diagnosis and Dr. Hancock’s lab identified a genetic marker that can identify those serious cases within an hour. The new diagnostic being developed will change the face of this major threat to people globally.“With sepsis, every hour counts,” says Hancock. “The treatment involves aggressive antibiotics but the most potent drugs can’t be administered until a diagnosis is confirmed because of the risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria.”
  • Dr. Brett Finlay’s work in the microbiome (the flora in our gut) is on the leading edge of discoveries that focus on how our internal microorganisms respond to disease and antibiotics. His team has recently developed a murine (mouse) model that mimics the microbiome of malnourishment adding a new and important tool for use in testing new drugs and vaccines for real-world settings.“Everyone thought that you simply needed to feed people and they’d be fine, but it didn’t work,” said Brett Finlay, a professor of microbiology and biochemistry at UBC. “The gut bacteria model allows us to figure out what’s going on and to think about ways to fix it.”
  • Dr. Mark Ansermino has developed a low cost wireless pulse oximeter that displays information on a cell phone for use in the developing world. The information display will minimizes the need for training in interpretation, optimizes the use of information in the pulse oximetry signal and provide intelligent interpretation of results. This new digital technology provides an important tool for diagnosing conditions such as preeclampsia, pneumonia, and sepsis.
  • Dr. Francois Jean is exploring how his recently identified protein-based inhibitors can be applied to processes that are essential for the life cycle of viruses such as hepatitis C, West Nile, Dengue, HIV-1 and Influenza A. This novel approach could provide new drugs for these important viruses that are a major health concern in Canada and around the world.
  • Dr. Vidramaditya Yadav is investigating methods to speed the discovery of new molecules that can be used in compounds for mosquito attractants or repellents. His team uses synthetic biology and robotic screening in precisely controlled bioprocesses for continuous and sustainable manufacturing of the behaviour modifying compounds.

Combining therapeutic advances with new modes of diagnosis and treatment appropriate to low-resource settings, the UBC NGDI is bringing together researchers and students from across the university to tackle some of the world’s largest healthcare issues.


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