USF global health researcher awarded Gates Foundation grant to tackle neglected parasitic diseases

Distinguished USF Health Professor Thomas Unnasch, PhD, was among the investigators to receive the latest Grand Challenges Explorations awards announced by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Dr. Unnasch is chair of global health in the USF College of Public Health.

More than 80 new grants of $100,000 each were made to investigators through this Gates Foundation initiative, which funds new novel ideas to help solve persistent global health and development problems. Winners spanning 14 countries were selected from more than 2,700 proposals.

Louise Kelly-Hope of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom and Dr. Unnasch, along with their research teams, will develop high-resolution tools to map the locations and chart the habitats of fly vectors in Africa to promote safer, more effective control strategies for several parasitic worm infections.  Their project was funded under the category “New Approaches for Detection, Treatment and Control of Selected Neglected Tropical Diseases.”

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Thomas Unnasch, PhD, is a member of USF’s Global Health Infectious Diseases Research team.

Some drugs that can successfully treat parasite infections become harmful in the presence of other parasites, but predicting where these co-infections are most likely to occur is difficult.

The goal of the Liverpool School/USF project is to use satellite images to identify overlapping areas where river blindness, a rare parasitic disease spread by the bite of a black fly; filariasis; and/or the Loa loa roundworm species that causes the filarial skin and eye disease are present.

“This is important because the elimination programs for filariasis and river blindness generally use mectizan, a drug that is usually very safe and effective.   But it can cause serious side effects in a small percentage of people with Loa loa infection; they can lapse into a coma and die,” Dr. Unnasch said. “Knowing where Loa is present with these other tropical diseases is essential to change the treatment program so that no one is hurt.”

Dr. Unnasch is one of the world’s leading experts on onchocerciasis, or river blindness.  Read more about his work.