USF researcher studying brain-eating parasite featured speaker at Amoeba Summit 2016

University of South Florida researchers continue to hone the high-volume screening of compounds that may lead to optimal drugs to combat the rare but deadly infection caused by the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri.

Distinguished USF Health Professor Dennis Kyle, PhD, who has studied the parasite since the early 1980s, was a featured speaker Sept. 9 at the Second Annual Amoeba Summit in Orlando, FL. The summit brings together health care professionals to spread awareness about risk, diagnosis and the need for research to find effective treatments against primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). The infection is caused by Naegleria fowleri, which flourishes in warm freshwater lakes. Florida, Texas and California are states with the most reported cases of PAM.

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Distinguished USF Health Professor Dennis Kyle, PhD, is among a select group of researchers across the country focusing on drug discovery for the rare but deadly infection caused by Naegleria fowleri, commonly known as the brain-eating amoeba. – Photo by Christopher Rice

Dr. Kyle, a member of the USF College of Public Health Global Infectious Diseases Research group, leads a National Institutes of Health-funded study to find faster-acting drugs that might be combined with existing therapies to significantly increase survival rates of patients who contract infections from these pathogenic free-living amoebae. He is among a select group of researchers across the country who focus on this neglected infectious disease.

PAM usually affects healthy children and young adults who engaged in swimming, diving or other water activities that may cause contaminated water to enter the nose.  Once the parasite crosses into the sinuses, the amoeba invades the frontal brain where the infection destroys brain tissue. It kills more than 97 percent of its victims within days. An Orlando teen recently became only the fourth person known to survive an infection by Naegleria fowleri.

The amoeba moves so quickly that by the time doctors definitively identify Naegleria fowleri as the cause of meningitis, it is often too late for existing treatments to work.

“With such a high fatality rate, the odds are likely stacked against any patient who comes into the hospital with this organism,” Dr. Kyle said. “It is very important to develop rapid laboratory diagnostics and drugs that kill the amoeba quicker, so that we have more survivors.”

At the summit, Dr. Kyle highlighted the following approaches that USF is taking to discover a new drug. His laboratory collaborates on different drug discovery projects with Georgia State, USF Chemistry and the Center for Drug Discovery and Innovation, and the biotechnology company Mycosynthetix.

  • Working to turn compounds that demonstrate the most promising chemical activity against the brain-eating amoeba into drugs.
  • Screening libraries of small molecules and natural products to identify new “hits.” Fungi metabolites have become a promising new source.
  • Repurposing drugs that may work against the amoeba — either those approved to treat a different disease or drugs tested in clinical trials but not approved.
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USF Health/VA infectious diseases physician Sandra Gompf, MD, with Dr. Kyle at this year’s Amoeba Summit. After Dr. Gompf lost her 10-year-old son to amoebic meningoencephalitis, she and her husband, also a doctor, launched an Amoeba Season awareness campaign to help educate the public on ways to prevent the parasitic infection. – Photo by Christopher Rice

As they aim to shorten the timeline from discovery of a new drug to treating patients, researchers are also seeking to better understand how the brain-eating pathogen works.

Studies with mice have shown that a microscopic droplet of water containing 1,000 of the pathogenic organisms can cause the same infection as that seen in humans, Dr. Kyle said. But, researchers still don’t know why some people get sick when exposed to the amoeba and others do not.

“Is it the numbers of amoeba, or something about the person’s immune system? Nothing really ties a string between getting infected and not getting infected,” Dr. Kyle said in an interview last month with ABC News Nightline.

For the full ABC News story including comments from Dr. Kyle, click here.

For more on the Amoeba Season campaign, visit www.amoeba-season.com.