Dr Christian Engwerda, from QIMR’s Immunology and Infection Laboratory, said the research into visceral leishmaniasis also had broader implications for other chronic infections, including HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, and for cancer treatments.
Visceral leishmaniasis (VL) kills 50,000 people each year in India, Sudan, central and southern American and the Mediterranean. There are half a million cases around the world each year.
Dr Engwerda’s work will be funded by the Federal Government’s Australia-India Strategic Research Fund. The Indian government has awarded matching funding to Indian clinician Professor Shyam Sundar from Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, as part of the collaborative grant.
“VL is a disease of poverty transmitted by sandflies, which breed in the makeshift mud housing in India,” Dr Engwerda said.
“There are drugs available, but patients require treatment for three to five hours each day for 20 days with the best of these drugs. This places an enormous cost on local health systems and individuals.
“We are trying to work out how to best switch on the patient’s own immune response to make the drug work better, and more quickly. If you can reduce treatment times to three to four days it would have huge repercussions for costs and patient welfare.”
Dr Engwerda’s team has discovered several new ways to stimulate the body’s natural immunity by blocking specific molecules in the body. He now plans to test combinations of these molecules to optimise their combined immune therapy approach.
Research will be conducted on samples taken from Indian patients at the Kala-Azar Medical Research Centre, in Muzaffarpur in the state of Bihar, with a view to eventually conducting clinical trials.
“Because many chronic diseases are associated with immune suppression, our findings may also have broader significance with potential applications for cancer, TB and HIV/AIDS, as well as enabling us to better understand how these types of disease are caused, ” Dr Engwerda said.
The $300,000 grant will fund pre-clinical studies at QIMR, field work in India, and be used to train Indian students in the latest work in immunology and cell biology techniques at QIMR.