Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what panic’s in thy breastie!
It is evening, 25th January 2018; following dinner, Professor Mitali Chaterjee from the Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, Kolkata, faces the room and begins to recite Robert Burns’ famous poem ‘To a mouse’, carefully articulating the old Scots in her lilting Indian accent. The audience, members of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), have gathered in honour of a specific kind of ‘tim’rous beastie’, the parasites causing two NTDs, Chagas disease and leishmaniasis. Following Mitali, Professor Claudio Pereira (from the University of Buenos Aires), and Dr Julia Cricco (from the National University of Rosario) deliver further selected stanzas in rhythmical, Latino voices. Finally, Professor Simon Croft (from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) translates the poem with an unexpected twist – using the language of modern parasitology. The room shifts through amused attention to laughter and applause.
In parallel to the words of the celebrated Scots bard, these diseases touch many lives. Our most recent estimates (2016) infer ~7,100 deaths each year from Chagas disease, with ~13.700 from leishmaniasis.1 However, the developing countries where these NTDs are most prevalent (Latin America, Africa and Asia2,3) have limited resilience and capacity to respond to this public health challenge.4 Current treatments for Chagas disease and leishmaniasis are outdated (>40 years old), costly, difficult for patients to tolerate, and have lengthy regimens which are challenging to support clinically in remote areas.3,5,6 In addition, they are ineffective against some parasite populations.5,7 Simpler tools and treatments for intensive disease management are needed urgently to combat both infections.3,6,8
NTDs are classed as ‘neglected’ in that research insights, potentially resulting in new therapeutic solutions, have been inadequately translated into pharmaceutical products.9,10 One of the biggest challenges for the pharmaceuticals drug discovery pipeline is the identification of valid biomolecular targets for chemical screens; with these in place, it would be then possible to quickly identify compounds which could be developed into new medicines and diagnostics for NTDs such as Chagas disease and leishmaniasis.9,10
This challenge has inspired another Scot, Dr Steven Cobb (Durham University) along with Durham colleagues Dr Paul Denny, Dr Ehmke Polhl, Professor Patrick Steel and Professor Graham Sandford, and Professor Jeremy Mottram at the University of York, to build upon their existing international collaborations and devise a solution; the NTD Network. This consortium, led by Professor Graham Sandford (Durham), has secured £8m from the Global Challenges Research Fund.11 Their mission is to progress research towards identifying new therapeutic targets and diagnostics for leishmaniasis and Chagas disease.11
The Network’s strategy is to support both individual researchers, as well as their partner institutions in developing countries. Alongside funding research for new therapeutic targets, the project will support knowledge transfer through international meetings, sponsored meeting attendance, and training for students and early career researchers, plus financial assistance for partner institutions to obtain vital equipment. This approach seeks to encourage a more sustainable solution in these developing countries, expanding their capacity and capability to respond to their own public health challenges.4
Attaining these goals requires that Network members collaborate effectively, and are willing to share their hard-won insights and expertise. Bringing everyone together at this inaugural meeting is therefore essential to initiate and develop these lasting interdisciplinary research relationships.
Over the last two days, participants have highlighted their respective insights and expertise, and the infrastructure available at their home institutions. New collaborations discussed in breakout sessions will reappear as proposals for short projects and longer-term, post-doctoral research. Tomorrow is set aside to clarify the consortium’s future directions, and establish the ‘International Advisory’ and ‘Network Management’ committees. But first, the conference dinner and its associated entertainments, falling on Burns night, celebrates the project’s official launch.
Robert Burns most famous poem, Auld Lang Syne, refers to ‘…a cup of kindness’, i.e. the sharing of goodwill, friendship and kind regard. Tonight, as the applause for Simon’s poetic insights subside, Steven progresses the team towards their final task – to ‘take a cup of kindness’ together, in the form of a sample of carefully selected highland malt. These colleagues laugh together and share friendship; they have the goodwill to work together across disciplines, cultures and continents. Together tonight, they raise a glass. Whether translating old Scots into modern parasitology, or insights into practical solutions against ‘tim’rous beasties’, they approach their task with mutually kind regard.
- Global Burden of Disease 2016. Causes of Death Collaborators. Lancet 2017; 390: 1151–1210.
- World Health Organization. Chagas disease (American trypanosomiasis). February 2018. http://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/chagas-disease-(american-trypanosomiasis) (accessed August 2018).
- World Health Organization. Leishmaniasis situation and trends. Available at http://www.who.int/gho/neglected_diseases/leishmaniasis/en/ (accessed August 2018).
- United Nations Development Programme. UNDP support to the implementation of sustainable development goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages. Updated June 2018. Available at file:///C:/Users/dul6ml2/Downloads/SDG-3%2520Health.pdf / (accessed August 2018).
- Bonney KM. Parasite 2014; 21: 11.
- Kobets T, et al. Curr Med Chem 2012; 19(10): 1443-1174.
- Zingales B. Acta Tropica 2018; 184: 38-52.
- World Health Organization. Accelerating work to overcome the global impact of neglected tropical diseases: a road map for implementation. 2012. Available at http://www.who.int/neglected_diseases/NTD_RoadMap_2012_Fullversion.pdf (accessed August 2018).
- Pécoul B. New drugs for neglected diseases—From pipeline to patients. PLoS Med 2004; 1(1): e6.
- Johnston, KE J Biomol Screen 2014; 19(3): 335-343.
- Durham University. Durham leads £8M Global Network to combat Neglected Tropical Diseases. July 2017. Available at https://www.dur.ac.uk/biosciences/newsandevents/?itemno=31992 (accessed August 2018).