Wellcome Trust funds Chagas disease drug discovery project

The Wellcome Trust recently awarded more than $5 million for a collaborative project between Anacor Pharmaceuticals and UGA researcher Rick Tarleton. The project will develop novel, boron-containing small molecules for the treatment of Chagas disease. Preliminary studies have identified oxoboroles, which were pioneered by Anacor Pharmaceuticals, as a potential new drug in the treatment of Chagas disease.

What is Chagas disease?

A triatomine bug or “kissing bug”

Chagas disease is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, and can be transmitted by the reduviid bug commonly known as the “kissing bug”, blood transfusions, and infected mothers can pass it on to their newborn children. It is estimated between 10 and 20 million people, mostly in Latin America, are infected with the parasite. More than 10,000 deaths occur annually due to the infection.

The disease was first described by Carlos Chagas in 1909. It affects the nervous system, the digestive system, and the heart. A person can remain asymptomatic for many years following infection, making diagnosis and treatment difficult.

Chagas disease kills more people in Latin America than any other parasitic disease, including malaria. While Latin America remains the most concentrated area for the disease, cases have been reported in the U.S. and Europe.

Current treatment and the need for new drug treatments

Currently two drugs are used to treat Chagas disease: benznidazole and nifurtimox. These drugs have been in use for over four decades; however, they require a long course of treatment, up to 90 days. They also have serious side effects that cause some patients to discontinue the treatment and they cannot be used during pregnancy. For a signification number of patients these drugs have failed to cure the infection.

There is a critical need for new drug therapies that are better than the current options. It is the goal of the Wellcome Trust funded drug discovery effort by Tarleton and Anacor  to produce a new drug candidate ready for clinical trials by 2016.

About the researchers

Rick Tarleton, at the University of Georgia’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, has more than 30 years of Trypanosoma cruzi research experience. His laboratory has made several important advances in the biological understanding of  T. cruzi and the treatment of Chagas disease, including the recent publication in Cell Host & Microbe where he and colleague Samarchith Kurup reported findings that provide a new way to develop a potential animal vaccine. Anacor Pharmaceuticals is a biopharmaceutical company focused on small molecule therapeutics that come from their novel boron chemistry platform.