Dundee researchers have been awarded £4.4m in funding for work on a disease that can can kill victims without them ever knowing they were infected.
Fourteen jobs in Dundee will be supported to fund the development of pre-clinical drug trials for Chagas disease, after the University of Dundee, along with GSK, received £4.4m in funding from the Wellcome Trust.
Experts at the Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infectives will aim to develop a new drug treatment for the disease, which can live in a person’s body before killing them, without warning.
Reports of the disease are rare in the UK due to a lack of testing and general awareness but it is estimated there could be “thousands” of cases from those who have been infected elsewhere and travelled to the UK.
It is the classic definition of a silent killer and the symptoms of infection tend to be only mild and similar to a mild cold or fever, meaning people tend to dismiss them.
Chagas disease is estimated to affect millions of people around the world, with current treatments limited in effectiveness and coming with significant side effects.
Dr Manu De Rycker, head of translational parasitology at Dundee’s School of Life Sciences, said the disease can cause life-threatening damage to the heart, oesophagus and colon.
“Decades after being infected, a large number of people – around 30% – will go on to develop the disease,” he added.
“It is the classic definition of a silent killer and the symptoms that a person has become infected tend to be only mild and similar to a mild cold or fever, meaning that people just tend to dismiss them.”
Tim Miles, portfolio leader in global health at GSK, said: “This funding from the Wellcome Trust will enable the development of urgently needed medicines with the potential to offer shorter, simpler and safer treatment options for people living with Chagas disease.
“We are proud to partner with the University of Dundee in this effort to change the trajectory of Chagas disease and positively impact the health of millions of people.”
The disease is caused by the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite and the World Health Organisation estimates between six and seven million people are infected with it.
It was found mainly within Central and South America but has slowly started to travel around the world due to large-scale population movements.
Chagas is spread by triatomine bugs, which typically live in the walls or roofs of poorly constructed homes.
They awake at night, biting exposed areas of skin and defecating nearby. The infection is spread when the person unwittingly smears the faeces into an open wound, or their eyes or mouth.
It can then subsequently be spread by blood transfusion and from mother to child.
“It is a very challenging problem from a drug discovery perspective as the parasites are intracellular, disseminate throughout the body and are difficult to kill,” said the University of Dundee’s professor Kevin Read, co-leader of the project.
“Chagas disease has the potential to affect many more millions of people in the years to come so the urgent need to develop new treatments cannot be overstated.”