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Elephantiasis drug breakthrough

15th September 2008

Experts in Liverpool say they have made what is possibly the biggest breakthrough in tropical medicine in 25 years with the development of a new treatment for elephantiasis and river blindness.

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The diseases, both of which are caused by the same parasitic worms, affect around 150 million people in the developing world.

The new treatment is now under clinical trial in Cameroon and Ghana, according to Mark Taylor, professor of parasitology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

Elephantiasis is a debilitating skin disease that causes estimated economic losses of US$1 billion in India annually. A further 18 million people globally have river blindness, and 300,000 of them have permanently lost their sight.

The new treatment was developed in response to the parasite's growing resistance to existing treatments, Taylor told the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool.

Existing drugs kill only juvenile worms, providing only temporary relief, meaning that the disease is able to re-emerge every 6-9 months, and that patients must take the drugs for decades, an average of 35 years per person.

However, the new treatment uses antibiotics to target bacteria that the worms rely on to reproduce. When the bacteria are killed, the worms are sterile.

This approach, Taylor said, offers hope of a lasting cure.

The trials are piloting the use of simple, cheap antibiotics that are already available in the epidemic areas, a factor which would be crucial in ensuring supply and cost-effectiveness of the therapy.

While the new drug is hard to administer in remote areas, because a treatment regime of 4-6 weeks is required, the research team is still looking for drugs which would shorten that time if taken in combination with the antibiotic.

Taylor said the team was using funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in the hope of translating the trials into an effective weapon against a widespread public health problem in poor countries.

 

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