University of South Florida

USF awarded NIH grant to find new treatments for fatal infections caused by pathogenic free-living amoeba [video]

Among the microbes targeted is the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri

Tampa, FL (Sept. 3, 2015) — University of South Florida College of Public Health researchers were recently awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to identify optimal drug candidates that could ultimately lead to a fast-acting treatment for rare but deadly infections caused by microscopic free-living amoeba (FLA) commonly found in warm freshwater lakes and rivers and in soil. The $425,000 award from the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is for the first two years of a five-year funding period, which could total $1.7 million over five years.

“Our ultimate goal for this project is to develop at least one new fast-acting drug that could be combined with existing therapies to significantly increase survival rates of patients who contract FLA infections of the central nervous system,” said principal investigator Dennis Kyle, PhD, a distinguished USF Health professor in the Department of Global Health, USF College of Public Health.

USF Health

Dennis Kyle, PhD, distinguished USF Health professor, with research team members Christopher Rice, PhD, and Beatrice Colon, PhD candidate.

Dr. Kyle’s team will work with David Boykin, PhD, professor of chemistry at Georgia State University, who makes the antimicrobial compounds that USF is developing.

The new grant will build upon previous NIH-funded work by the USF researchers, who have already zeroed in on two new chemical compounds 500 times more potent than existing drugs used to combat the almost always fatal infection caused by the brain-eating amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri.  The new study will expand the screening and development of the most promising drug candidates to target Acanthamoeba spp, as well as Naegleria fowleri.

Naegleria fowleri causes primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a rare disease that kills more than 97 percent of its victims within days. PAM is usually contracted by healthy children and young adults who engaged in swimming, diving or other water activities that may forcefully push contaminated water up the nose.  Once in the nose, the amoeba moves quickly to the brain where the infection destroys brain tissue.

PAM cases tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been most prevalent in Florida, California and Texas, and some officials believe that rising temperatures could increase the number and geographic range of the heat-seeking amoeba  and potentially lead to more cases.


Microscopic image of the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri.

More pervasive than Naegleria fowleri, multiple species of Acanthamoeba cause granulomatous  amoebic encephalitis (GAE), a life-threatening infection of the nervous system most often affecting people with weakened immune systems or generally poor health. Acanthamoeba spp also cause amoebic keratitis – a rare corneal infection that can lead to blindness in severe cases, and in the United States the condition is most often associated with improper contact lens use.

Despite the poor prognosis of these two emerging infectious diseases, their rarity has made them “orphan” diseases with no concerted efforts to discover new drugs to treat them, Dr. Kyle said.

“The major problem for infections caused by any of the pathogenic free-living amoeba is the lack of effective treatments,” he said. “PAM and GAE are usually fatal diseases even if the infection is diagnosed promptly and treated with the best available drug regimens.”

Watch a video about how to prevent Naegleria fowleri’s deadly infection:

-USF Health-

USF Health’s mission is to envision and implement the future of health. It is the partnership of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, the College of Nursing, the College of Public Health, the College of Pharmacy, the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences; and the USF Physicians Group. USF Health is an integral part of the University of South Florida, a high-impact, global research university dedicated to student success. For more information, visit




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