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Stalking a Global Killer

04/16/2015

Pace University’s Haskins Labs Receives $200,000 from the Gates Foundation

Stalking a Global Killer

Pace University’s Haskins Labs Receives $200,000 from the Gates Foundation to Continue Research on Treatments for Neglected Diseases

NEW YORK - Cryptosporidiosis, a disease you may never have heard of, may not get as much attention as more recent scourges like Ebola, but its death toll—100,000 or more people annually—can be just as horrific and has no cure.

Enter Haskins Laboratories at Pace University’s Dyson College of Arts and Sciences. Researchers at Haskins have long been champions of neglected diseases. They developed two of the only treatments for Human African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness, which is spread to humans by the tsetse fly. Recent research at the labs includes work on cryptosporidiosis or “crypto.”

Crypto is caused by a waterborne parasite and can lead to massive, often fatal, dehydration, particularly in patients with underdeveloped or compromised immune systems. That includes young children, the elderly, and people with immune-system disorders, such as AIDS. Though crypto was identified as a human illness as far back as 1976, there is still no known cure.

Nigel Yarlett, PhD, a professor of chemistry in the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences at Pace and director of the Haskins Laboratories, hopes to change that. He and his students are working on a process that could be the essential first step toward a cure. To continue that work, they were awarded a nearly $200,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in November.

The danger of crypto is especially acute in areas where the supply of clean water is unreliable, including much of Africa. But the disease can strike anywhere, even at the local swimming pool. In a 1993 outbreak in Wisconsin, for example, more than 400,000 people contracted crypto, resulting in an estimated 69 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Because Cryptosporidium, the parasite that causes crypto, can survive for only two days in the laboratory, testing drugs that might be effective against it had been impossible. But after more than five years of experiments, Yarlett and his team at Pace developed a technique for keeping parasite samples alive and replicating for as long as six months. They do that by continuously growing host intestinal cells on the surface of hollow fiber tubes and creating a gut-like environment for the parasite to grow in.

Their technique could also allow for the cryogenic freezing of samples, so they can be compared against future strains to see how the parasite is mutating in response to human intervention, Yarlett says. “Developing a drug that works is one thing,” he explains, “but a year down the road that can change.”

Crypto is only one of the diseases Yarlett is working to combat. Haskins Labs developed their first treatment for African sleeping sickness in the early 1980s, but because that drug must be administered intravenously it is impractical in rural settings. A new oral drug developed at the lab is now in its second round of clinical trials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yarlett says the results look promising.

Professor Yarlett came to Pace in 1986 and became director of the Haskins Laboratories in 2006. Over that time, he has devoted much of his research to neglected diseases, which kill or debilitate hundreds of millions of people in underdeveloped countries. He finds the field rewarding. “At the end of the day, you can do something to change the lives and standards of living of people who live hundreds or thousands of miles away,” he says.

Haskins Laboratories

Established in Schenectady, New York, in 1939, the Haskins Laboratories grew out of a General Electric Company initiative to build million-volt X-ray machines for cancer treatment and genetics research. One of the four young scientists involved in the project was Caryl Haskins, a physicist and geneticist. Two years later, Haskins and his labs moved to Midtown Manhattan, where they remained for the next 28 years.

In 1970, the laboratories split into two divisions. The Speech Recognition and Cognition Division became affiliated with Yale University, while the Microbiology Division affiliated with Pace.

About Dyson College of Arts and Sciences:  Pace University’s liberal arts college, Dyson College offers more than 50 programs, spanning the arts and humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and pre-professional programs (including pre-medicine, preveterinary, and pre-law), as well as numerous courses that fulfill core curriculum requirements.  The College offers access to numerous opportunities for internships, cooperative education and other hands-on learning experiences that complement in-class learning in preparing graduates for career and graduate/professional education choices.

About Pace University: Since 1906, Pace University has educated thinking professionals by providing high quality education for the professions on a firm base of liberal learning amid the advantages of the New York metropolitan area. A private university, Pace has campuses in New York City and Westchester County, New York, enrolling nearly 13,000 students in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs in its Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Lubin School of Business, College of Health Professions, School of Education, School of Law, and Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems. Visit www.pace.edu.