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UGA Research Foundation receives $18.7 millon Gates Foundation grant

UGA Research Foundation receives $18.7 million Gates Foundation grant to improve control of schistosomiasis, a debilitating and neglected tropical disease

Athens, Ga. – The University of Georgia Research Foundation has received a five-year, $18.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to research ways to reduce morbidity from schistosomiasis in low- and middle-income countries in Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. Researchers will develop and evaluate research-based approaches and diagnostic tools to identify, control and even eliminate schistosomiasis where feasible.

Dan Colley, director of UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, is principal investigator for the project, which will provide critical tools and an evidence base for decisions about controlling schistosomiasis. Colley, a microbiologist and immunologist in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, has researched the disease for nearly 40 years.

“This grant significantly bolsters the University of Georgia’s growing strength in public health and medical research,” said UGA President Michael F. Adams. “It holds promise for great progress in eliminating a disease that causes suffering and economic hardship for millions around the world.”

This is the largest grant UGA has received from the Gates Foundation, the first for medical research and the third-largest grant in UGA history.

The project grew out of a consensus research agenda developed in 2007 with broad input from the schistosomiasis research and control community. It focuses on operational research, and its overall goal is to answer key strategic questions about controlling schistosomiasis to ensure that future programs operate with increased efficacy, cost-effectiveness and sustainability.

“This grant will support and advance pioneering work on schistosomiasis under the technical guidance of Dan Colley,” said UGA Vice-President for Research David Lee. “With his international leadership, this award will make great strides in addressing the widespread, debilitating impact of this infection. The University community is proud of Colley and others at the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases who work tirelessly to improve health conditions in the developing world.”

Secondary goals for the project are to integrate global schistosomiasis control efforts with other programs, monitor the effectiveness of current treatments, develop survey and diagnostic tools and overcome barriers that currently prevent effective control.

Caused by several species of flatworms of the genus Schistosoma, this neglected tropical disease affects some 200 million people worldwide. It is most common in Africa, and to a lesser extent in Asia and South America. It is transmitted through a species of freshwater snails, which become infected through contaminated water and then multiply and release infected worms into the water. The worms enter through the skin as their human hosts wash clothes, swim, or fish.

While it has a relatively low mortality rate, schistosomiasis can damage internal organs and impair physical and cognitive development in children. Symptoms of infection include abdominal pain, cough, diarrhea, fever, fatigue, pulmonary hypertension and often an enlarged liver and spleen. The worms can live in the blood vessels of people for up to 40 years, leading to chronic illness.

“Mass drug control programs in several African countries already use the drug praziquantel to reduce mortality from schistosomiasis and to help stem the suffering,” said Dan Colley, principal investigator on the grant and director of UGA’s Center for Tropical and Global Emerging Diseases. “And while controlling schistosomiasis is a World Health Organization global priority, most endemic countries still lack adequate control programs, and the sustainability of existing programs is tenuous.”

Colley will oversee a management team based at the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, University of Georgia, but the consortium will involve partners from around the world. Much of the research will be carried out through subgrants to investigators at several federal, state and private institutions and laboratories and field sites in North America, South America, Europe and Africa.