SEATTLE — Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carlos Slim Health Institute, the Fighting Infections through Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) program is set to develop new methods and technologies that will counter the diseases currently affecting “neglected populations” in Central and South America.
The FIRST program is a two-year project led by scientists and researchers at the University of California-San Francisco, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of California-San Diego, the University of California-Santa Cruz, Blood Systems Research Institute, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Sustainable Sciences Institute in San Francisco and Nicaragua, the University of North Carolina and the University of Sao Paulo. They will focus on the Latin American region of Mesoamerica, where a large portion of the indigenous population lives in extreme poverty.
The aim of the FIRST program is to prevent, diagnose and treat tropical diseases by creating and testing affordable new tools, drugs and public campaigns. If successful, these regional developments could potentially be used as a model for other areas of the world affected by similar diseases and issues.
Additional goals and projects include developing cheap diagnostic tools to detect early stages of dengue, information systems to send notices of dengue outbreaks, cell phone apps to control the spread of mosquitoes, less toxic drugs for Chagas disease and improved biomarkers to monitor the treatment of Chagas disease. Chagas’ disease, dengue and onchocerciasis are the primary diseases that the FIRST program will study. These three diseases were chosen because they “collectively affect billions of people worldwide.”
Chagas disease is the leading cause of heart failure throughout Mesoamerica. Spread by reduviid bugs, Chagas disease is asymptomatic and affects eight million to 11 million people in Latin America, especially those living in poor housing conditions. Current therapy produces unwanted side effects, is often ineffective and requires 60 or more days of treatment. The FIRST program strives to explore the development of new drugs to treat Chagas disease by “supporting acquisition of marine natural products from Mesoamerican sources.”
Dengue is a tropical viral disease rapidly spread by mosquitoes. Although dengue infects 100 million people in the world every year, there are no specific treatments or vaccines available. The FIRST program’s research concerning dengue emphasizes the development of faster diagnostic methods and better vaccines.
Eva Harris, Professor of Infectious Diseases at UC-Berkeley, is the head of those projects. “Our laboratory-based and informatics projects on dengue are being conducted in close collaboration with our long-term partners in Nicaragua, including training of Nicaraguan scientists in Managua and at UC Berkeley,” stated Harris.
Transmission of onchocerciasis, a parasitic infection, is low in Mesoamerica, but the disease still may affect many communities in the area. Currently available treatments for onchocerciasis do not kill the adult worms. Jim McKerrow, the principal investigator in charge of the FIRST program’s onchocerciasis project, hopes to counter the issue by repurposing Auranofin, an FDA approved drug. Along with researchers in Cameroon and the United Kingdom, FIRST scientists will begin conducting clinical trials to determine the effectiveness of Auranofin as a macrofilaricide.
Dr. Jaime Sepulveda, the executive director of UC-San Francisco Global Health Sciences, has stated that the FIRST program is focused on pursuing “quick wins, allowing us to make a huge impact immediately, as well as game-changing, high-risk research that will make a significant impact in the long term.”