Durham University Professor Paul Denny is the director of the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD) Network. The NTD Network is an international consortium of researchers funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund specialising in researching effective treatments for Leishmaniasis and Chagas disease. He outlines how the NTD network was founded, their work and the future of their research.
The NTD Network began in 2016 where a meeting funded by the University between the Durham academics and several colleagues from other institutions, Drs Patrick Steel, Ariel Silber, Nahid Ali, and Paul Denny, to name a few. A representative from the Medical Research Council informed them of an opportunity for the Network to gain funding, resulting in a gathering of contacts to form the fledgling Network.
Within a few weeks an application was written to the Grand Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), supported by the Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) budget which resulted in the developing Network, represented by Drs Ali, Denny and Silber being granted £7.8 million funding.
“The core aim of the Network was to grow capacity and capability in endemic regions (South America and South Asia) for drug target validation for the parasites that cause leishmaniasis and Chagas disease,” explained Professor Denny.
Leishmaniasis and Chagas disease are two diseases from the list of Neglected Tropical Diseases that the World Health Organisation has identified to strengthen an international response aimed at reducing the spread and eventually eradicating them.
Leishmaniasis is prevalent in over 92 countries, and has three forms: cutaneous, visceral and mucocutaneous leishmaniasis. Each form of this disease can cause debilitating illness which causes lifelong disfigurement, social exclusion or in the case of visceral leishmaniasis can be fatal if untreated. Over one billion people are at risk of infection. There are 30,000 cases of visceral leishmaniasis and over one million new cases of cutaneous leishmaniasis each year.
Chagas disease affects six to seven million people worldwide, with the largest proportion of these being in South America. Chagas disease initially presents as a severe infection but causes chronic illness that can result in death by heart failure due to destruction of the hearts’ muscle and nervous system. Both diseases are caused by single-celled parasites transmitted through insects.
As these diseases are mostly prevalent in poverty-stricken areas there has been a dearth of research resulting in existing drugs being expensive, toxic, and not always effective.
So far the impact of the network has been widespread, providing, Professor Denny describes, “four training workshops for early career researchers, prioritising those from endemic regions on genetic drug target validation, medical chemistry and drug discovery and drug screening. These were held in Brazil, Argentina, India, and Pakistan and have trained an ‘army’ of young researchers who now help develop research in their home institutes.”
“Our Business Engagement Voucher (BEV) scheme has supported numerous industry-academia interactions which have led to many positive outcomes, including an impactful response to a cutaneous leishmaniasis epidemic in Pakistan which I witnessed last week.”
Professor Denny continues, “We have supported work published in more than 70 primary research articles and facilitated collaborations which have raised more than £4M in additional funding.”
Despite the progress made by the NTD Network, the Covid-19 pandemic and its following consequences made research more challenging, according to Professor Denny: “The obvious impacts were lab closures across the Network, which curtailed laboratory research and lead to outcomes being diminished and considerable staff and student anxiety.
“However, more troubling is the ‘covidization’ of research which has followed the pandemic. This has led to a global decrease in NTD research funding (down 20% last year according to GFinder). Without funding, the gains made during this project, and more widely, may well be lost.”
Additionally, another challenge has occurred as possibly indefinite UK Governmental cuts to overseas aid from 0.7% of Gross National Income to 0.5% in November 2021 removing roughly £4-to-5 billion pounds from the overall budget.
The impact of this on the Network meant “funding was cut, however the project was able to continue until the end date which is now July 2022. However, with the future of GCRF uncertain, the opportunity to capitalise on our progress is under threat.”
The Network is seeking new funding sources, which hopefully will allow this impactful work to continue.