research Holds Promise for treating Chagas disease

Meharry's Fernando Villalta, Ph.D., and colleagues at Vanderbilt may have a new remedy for a growing world threat.

Research at Meharry Medical College in conjunction with Vanderbilt University shows promise in curing a deadly tropical infection quickly taking on worldwide scope.

The malady, Chagas disease, is found mostly in Latin America infecting nearly eight million, but the carrier of the infected parasite—an insect called the "kissing bug"—has been found elsewhere in the world, including the southern United States and as far north as the Great Lakes, courtesy of human migration.

The disease-carrying protozoan parasite—Trypanosoma cruzi—is in the kissing bug's feces and can be transmitted through tainted food and drink, via blood, and from mother to child. Fever is common during the acute phase of the illness, but the parasite can also bring about inflammation in the heart and brain leading to death. In the chronic phase, Chagas disease seriously affects both the heart and gastrointestinal tract. Current available treatment is toxic and limited to use during the acute stage. However, new research shows potential for a more effective cure without dangerous side effects.

Fernando Villalta, Ph.D., chair of Microbiology and Immunology at Meharry, is first author on a paper published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. Joined by Galina Lepesheva, Ph.D.—research associate professor of Biochemistry at Vanderbilt and a member of the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health—the report says both the acute and chronic forms of the infection were cured in mice with 100 percent survival and without toxic side effects through a small molecule—VNI. The molecule impedes a parasitic enzyme necessary for cell multiplication and integrity.

The research, supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a pilot project grant from the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology, was highlighted in the Faculty of 1000 and by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences through Biomedical Beat.

The research was supported by a NIH grant GM067871, by a pilot project grant from the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology and in part by NIH grants GM084333 and AI080580. Material for this article was contributed by Vanderbilt University.