Fogarty funds cutting-edge biodiversity initiatives

September / October 2014 | Volume 13, Issue 5

In addition to diseases for which there are ineffective or no cures, key pathogens are becoming increasingly drug-resistant. As a result, many of the treatments and medications that the global health community has relied on for decades need to be replaced or supplemented with new medical interventions. To address this problem, Fogarty has awarded three grants totaling about $15 million over five years for research focused on biodiversity conservation and the discovery of new therapeutic agents derived from plants, animals and microorganisms in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Funding from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) program - which is jointly administered by the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) - will support new and ongoing biodiversity efforts in Brazil, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.

"There is an urgent need to explore untapped natural products to discover cures and treatments that will improve health," said Fogarty Director Dr. Roger I. Glass. "These awards will encourage an integrated, sustainable model of collaborative international research and training while supporting effective conservation efforts."

Close up of brown ant
Photo courtesy of Dr. Cameron Currie

A new project being launched in
Brazil by Harvard Medical School
will examine fungal-farming ants,
which possess chemical defenses
against pathogenic fungi.

 

Brown, shriveled shipworm looped into a circular shape on black background
Photo courtesy of
U.S. Geological Survey

Grantees from the Oregon Health
and Science University seek to
discover therapies for bacterial and
parasitic infections in the
Philippines by studying mollusks,
such as this shipworm.

 

Underwater image of red seaweed on colorful sea floor
Photo courtesy of Dr. Mark Hay

Algae and slow-growing seaweeds
found in coral reefs near Fiji have
chemical compounds with biological
qualities that may lead
researchers from the Georgia
Institute of Technology to
important drug discoveries.

Fungal-farming ants, which possess chemical defenses against pathogenic fungi, will be the subject of a new project being launched in Brazil by Harvard Medical School and the University of São Paulo. The research team will examine symbiotic bacteria that live in specialized anatomical features of the ants called crypts, which harbor symbiotic bacteria.

The bacteria produce small molecules that act as antifungal agents, inhibiting invasive fungal pathogens but not the crop fungus that the ants rely on for nutrition. The researchers intend to identify the antifungal agents to develop treatments for invasive fungal diseases that affect humans and may be active against blood cancers, and protozoal parasite infections like Chagas disease and leishmaniasis.

Through an ongoing research initiative in the Philippines examining mollusks and the interactions with their associated bacteria, a team headed by grantees from the Oregon Health and Science University, in collaboration with the University of the Philippines is seeking to discover therapies for bacterial infections, as well as parasitic diseases such as toxoplasmosis and cryptosporidiosis, cancer, pain and other neurological conditions. Mollusks are one of the most diverse groups of marine animals and their associated bacteria represent an unexplored trove of chemical diversity. The biologists carrying out the study will focus on venomous gastropods and wood-inhabiting bivalves known as shipworms. By examining the symbiotic microbes associated with these two types of invertebrates, they hope to discover the most biologically active molecules in the interaction process that might also act as drugs. Additionally, the project aims to foster training, conservation and the development of drug discovery in the Philippines.

Finally, grantees from the Georgia Institute of Technology will continue a collaborative effort with the University of the South Pacific's Center for Drug Discovery and Conservation to discover new drug leads - chemical compounds that have pharmacological or biological qualities that are likely to be therapeutically useful - from cultured marine microbes and diverse coral reef organisms collected from Fiji and the Solomon Islands. Researchers will examine overlooked species, including coralline algae and slow-growing seaweeds in dark, cryptic habitats, where organisms often employ chemical defenses to protect tissues that are difficult to replace. The team's drug discovery efforts will focus on four major disease areas: infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and drug-resistant pathogens, neglected tropical diseases, including hookworms and roundworms, cancer, and neurodegenerative and central nervous system disorders. The researchers will also work with marine ecologists to develop more effective strategies for reef conservation, with the goal of expanding awareness of the importance of conservation and the maintenance of healthy coral reefs while emphasizing training and technology transfer to the host country.

The ICBG program supports international, public-private, interdisciplinary research teams in the exploration and discovery of novel compounds and extracts from nature with potential for development as therapeutic agents for multiple disease targets. The program promotes conservation and bio-resource planning and policy in collaborating countries, investing in research capacity in partnering countries while supporting the sustainable use of these resources, the knowledge to conserve them, and equitable partnership frameworks among research organizations in the U.S. and low- and middle-income-countries.

Fogarty's funding partners for the awards include the National Science Foundation, National Cancer Institute, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The Foundation for Research Support of the State of São Paulo (FAPESP) is also providing parallel funding and in-kind support for the Brazil-based project.

2014 International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) awards

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