Using Cutting-Edge Science and Technology Against an Age-Old Disease

1/24/14

When I started working on the research and science of leprosy more than a decade ago, people thought this chronic infectious disease would eliminate itself and burn out over time.

We didn’t have time for that. Why? Nearly 250,000 new cases of leprosy are diagnosed every year, and many more go undetected. Approximately 10 percent of new cases occur in children.

Even though it’s associated with biblical times, leprosy remains a problem in the modern era and was reported in 130 countries during the past year. It’s most prevalent in a number of countries throughout Africa, Asia and South America. And symptoms include progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes that can take several years to appear, making the disease hard to diagnosis at an early stage.

Even worse, leprosy comes with a stigma. Unlike most other diseases, leprosy results in isolation, as people with leprosy are often shunned.

The good news as World Leprosy Day approaches on Jan. 26, however, is that we now have the key scientific solutions and momentum—as well as key collaborations, like we have with American Leprosy Missions and others—to finally have the opportunity to eliminate leprosy.

I couldn’t have said this 10 years ago.

Unlike many infectious organisms, the leprosy bacterium cannot be grown in the lab to study or to use in developing a vaccine. But, IDRI is able to use its scientific expertise to leverage advanced synthetic genomics techniques. And, today at IDRI, we’re synthesizing genes, identifying highly immunogenic proteins, and testing them for use in potential tools to fight leprosy—all in a unique and integrated process.

At IDRI, we are also attacking leprosy in two different ways.

First, by developing a fast, easy-to-use test that provides an early diagnosis of infection before clinical symptoms—such as nerve damage—begin to appear. This new approach is far superior to the traditional method of diagnosis, which has generally involved clinical and / or microscopic assessment. IDRI is also developing a companion test so we can identify which people will likely progress to disease and to determine the appropriate course of treatment.

And, second, by developing a vaccine that can be used therapeutically in conjunction with antibiotics to shorten therapy. IDRI’s diagnostic tools would be used to identify infected individuals and IDRI’s vaccine would then be used on a targeted basis for treatment of the patient as well as to immunize family members and close contacts. This treatment and prevention strategy has been significantly bolstered by support from global pharmaceutical giant Novartis, which donates the currently used antibiotics.

The most exciting part of this breakthrough is the fact that we’re now right on the cusp of human clinical trials after a decade of leprosy vaccine development. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will initially oversee the multi-stage trials in the U.S., before they move on to the Philippines, India and Brazil.

Global technology has been an integral part of our quest to eliminate leprosy.

The rapid diagnostic test for leprosy infection, for example, was developed in conjunction with OrangeLife, a Brazilian company. OrangeLife combined IDRI’s leprosy diagnostic antigens with a smart phone-based platform that standardizes the ability to accurately interpret results and get a quantitative value. The test requires just a single drop of blood, mixed with a developing reagent. From there, it’s somewhat like a pregnancy test – the appearance of two lines indicates that the person is positive for leprosy infection. From there, the information from the phone is pushed to the person’s medical records.

Despite this blending of cutting-edge life-science technology with state-of-the-art communications technology, the most important thing to remember—at least from my perspective—is that people around the world now believe we will soon have the tools to finally eliminate leprosy.

The next step is making this disease disappear.

Steve Reed is the founder, president and chief scientific officer of Seattle-based IDRI. Follow @

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