For the first time in Tech System’s history, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a grant to a Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center professor. According to The Daily Toreador, Texas Tech’s student-run newspaper, Afzal Siddiqui, a Grover E. Murray Distinguished professor in the School of Medicine, received $2,849,281 to further his research into schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease.
Of parasitic diseases, only malaria kills more people than schistosomiasis does, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. According to Siddiqui, the disease impacts 74 different countries and, currently, 200 million people are infected, with another 800 million individuals at risk of infection.
Siddiqui’s research seeks to develop a vaccine which not only prevents the infection, but treats the infection, he explains, adding that the money received will be used to “refine and optimize the vaccine so we can apply for IND approval from the FDA so we can use it in clinical trials.” It should only be three to five years until phase one of clinical trials, Siddiqui hopes, but the entire process will take many more years. The clinical trials will cost $20 million total, he said.
Steven Berk, executive vice president, provost and dean of the School of Medicine, said the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation cares about the overall health of the world and gives Siddiqui’s research credibility.
“This is a great opportunity for Dr. Siddiqui to continue his research that could have an effect at a world level,” he said. “He’s been working on this vaccine for a decade. He’s not the only one in the world trying to develop a vaccine, but it looks like he’s a real leader in the fight against this disease.”
Siddiqui has spent more than two decades working with parasitic diseases and researching for vaccines. In the past five years, he has received more than $4 million in funding and is funded as a principal investigator by NIH, according to the release.
“He’s had great success with developing through the National Institutes of Health,” Berk said, “but he’s sort of at the next level where it’s so expensive to do all of the testing. Right now, prevention of the disease has more to do with providing clean water, but through the Gates Foundation, this would be the best opportunity.”
Although it may be years before clinical trials, Siddiqui thinks they are on the cusp of getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration for testing.
More than two years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation noticed Siddiqui’s research and invited him to apply for a grant. “The process is very, very rigorous,” he said. “I gave several presentations to the foundation’s officials. I had to send even my raw data so their experts could analyze it.” After an eight-month review process, he received the grant.
His vaccine targets a particular function of the parasite, in order to prevent it from changing its membrane to avoid the body’s defensive system. As he explains, the vaccine affects a protein whcih is very important in the survival of the parasite. “What happens is that this parasite can live in somebody’s body for 20 years, even if antibodies attack it. The vaccine is against a protein that is very important in the changing of its membrane.”
People obtain the disease through contact with contaminated water, and the parasite digs into the skin and eventually moves to the lungs and liver. Although schistosomiasis is virtually unknown in the U.S., Siddiqui said Texas has the highest rates of parasitic infections in the country and should be a concern.
The U.S. government cares a lot about these kinds of diseases, he said, because schistosomiasis has occurred in nearby Puerto Rico and other places where tourists and military personnel may travel.
“These diseases don’t recognize borders,” Siddiqui said. “We may think we don’t have it, but we do. There are recent papers that show we have almost every parasite you can think of. We don’t see the intensity of it, but we do have all of these.”
For example, more than 9 million American women have a parasitic, sexually transmitted disease called trichomoniasis. However, because it is transmitted through sexual contact, many view it as a taboo topic and do not address it.
Siddiqui’s team currently consists of two post-doctoral scholars, three doctoral students, one technician and several students. The grant will allow the hiring of five or six doctoral investigators, he said.
“When you have that kind of talent added to one program,” he said, “it adds to the whole institution. You’re bringing these intelligent people who will interact with others. It will benefit everyone.”
The grant benefits HSC as a whole because it brings the school’s research to a national and global forefront, Berk said.