Each year, as many as 30,000 people in countries across Asia, East Africa, South America and the Mediterranean die from visceral leishmaniasis (VL), an invariably fatal – and poverty-associated – parasitic disease contracted from bites by infected sandflies.
Since its establishment in 2015 by the nonprofit Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi), the Open Synthesis Network (OSN) has engaged students around the world to help discover new drugs for patients afflicted with neglected diseases such as visceral leishmaniasis. Montclair State, through its Sokol Institute for Pharmaceutical Life Sciences, has recently joined this collaborative research partnership of 18 prestigious universities in Brazil, Germany, India, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S.
“Montclair State strongly supports this partnership and the creative way it aims to achieve its goals,” says College of Science and Mathematics Dean Lora Billings. “We value experiential learning activities, such as medicinal chemistry research, which allow our students to work on real drug discovery projects.”
Drug discovery for neglected diseases such as malaria and lymphatic filariasis, or elephantiasis, and global health are keen focuses of the Sokol Institute. “The Sokol Institute is emerging as a major player in drugs for neglected diseases and the Open Synthesis Network is one additional program that is extending our reach,” says chemistry and biochemistry professor and Sokol Institute Director John Siekierka.
“Like other neglected diseases, VL is largely found in underdeveloped countries, and clinical trials are difficult since it is hard to access infected individuals in remote areas,” explains Siekierka. “That said, consortia between academia, industry and nonprofits such as the DNDi are changing the ways drugs are developed. Imagine if one of the compounds synthesized by students at Montclair State actually becomes a drug.”
Thanks to the new partnership with DNDi’s OSN this is a real possibility, as Siekierka and fellow chemistry and biochemistry professor and medicinal chemist, David Rotella, can offer students the opportunity to participate in the discovery of compounds with the potential to kill the parasites that cause VL. The DNDi’s ultimate goal is to find an effective compound that is orally administered, easier to use in the field, and that has fewer side effects than current treatment options.
Siekierka is working to identify the appropriate targets and establish functional assays for which Rotella and his team will synthesize small molecule inhibitors that will ultimately be tested by the DNDi for treatment of VL.
For Rotella, the most exciting aspect of the project is the chance to involve students in an active drug discovery research project. “This demonstrates to them how important research is in finding new ways to treat disease,” he says.
Senior chemistry major Rochelle Cyrille, who has begun the process of making compounds, says, “It’s a privilege to work on this project, especially since it is the career path I hope to pursue.” The disease is endemic in South America. Because Cyrille grew up in Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela, she is especially motivated to see the project succeed.
Both project – and partnership – have wide-ranging benefits, according to Rotella. “Those at risk of VL benefit from an essential step in the discovery of new drug candidates to treat the disease. Students benefit because their research directly impacts the progress toward the goal while giving them first-hand drug discovery experience,” he says. “The University benefits because the OSN is in place at select institutions worldwide – and association with this group of research universities recognizes the potential for their work to impact human health.”