Finding better treatments for parasitic diseases

Photo of laboratory flasks

Elephantiasis, or lymphatic filariasis, is a parasitic disease infecting more than 120 million people in the tropics. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 40 million of them are disfigured and disabled by the infectious disease. Characterized by elephantine enlarged limbs and thickened skin, lymphatic filariasis is caused by a parasite transmitted to humans by mosquito bites.

During the last five years, John Siekierka, Montclair State chemistry and biochemistry professor and director of the University’s Margaret and Herman Sokol Institute for Pharmaceutical Life Sciences, and Sokol Professor of Chemistry David Rotella have received more than $932,000 in grant funding from the Celgene Corporation Division of Global Health to find effective new treatments for the disease.

“New treatments are needed because the existing drugs are not completely effective and have side effects that limit their use,” says Siekierka. Determining the means by which parasites such as Brugia malayi – the roundworm parasite responsible for elephantiasis in South and Southeast Asia – avoid host immune responses, can potentially lead to effective new therapeutic treatments.

Photo of Professors John Siekierka and David RotellaThe Sokol Institute and Celgene Global Health recently renewed a formal agreement to fund this research for another year.

“We are collaboratively investigating inhibition of a parasitic protein kinase for potential treatment of lymphatic filariasis,” explains Siekierka. In addition to Celgene, University researchers are working with the Filariasis Research Reagent Resource Center at the University of Georgia and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Institute in Switzerland to find an effective new treatment for lymphatic filariasis.

Siekierka’s team had previously identified a protein kinase that the Brugia malayi worm needs to protect itself from destruction by the host’s immune system. By inhibiting this protein kinase, the worm would quickly die and the disease would be treated.

“We have identified molecules that are now being investigated in a variety of animal models of these diseases and we have also screened new molecules and are in the process of characterizing their activity against the
parasite,” he says. “The research focus is expanding beyond a single potential kinase target to include others.”