La Trobe research makes global impact

La Trobe University Associate Professor Warwick Grant will collaborate with the McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and African scientists to achieve the sustainable elimination of Onchocerciasis.

River blindness is caused by the parasitic worm Onchocerca volvulus, transmitted to humans by bites from infected black flies that breed in fast-flowing rivers. Onchocerciasis causes severe itching, disfiguring skin conditions and visual impairment, including blindness. It is the second leading cause of infectious blindness worldwide.

Since ivermectin – the drug of choice for river blindness – became available in 1987, annual ivermectin distribution to whole communities has reduced new infections so well that endemic countries are now targeting elimination.

“Because there is no diagnostic sensitive enough to detect the low levels of infection present as we approach elimination, our most pressing issue is detecting residual cases at low frequency so we know when it is safe to stop drug distribution. We are also very concerned about the lack of methods to detect emerging drug resistance, which would threaten achieving elimination,” Associate Professor Grant said.

“At this stage, African countries don’t have the tools they need.”

The NIH grant builds on work conducted by Associate Professor Grant to develop such tools with African collaborators and funding from TDR – the UNICEF, UNDP, World Bank and WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases.

Associate Professor Grant said the NIH grant allows researchers to significantly accelerate this work by making population-level genome sequence maps of Onchocerca volvulus throughout Africa for the first time.

“This genetic mapping will help us decipher and record the worm’s genetic ancestry: where it comes from and where it is being transmitted. It will also allow us to predict where resurgence of infection might occur if we stop treatment prematurely,” Associate Professor Grant said.

“These new data will also allow us to refine mathematical models to objectively estimate repopulation rates and identify where recurrence of the disease is most likely to occur. This will be the basis for tools endemic countries need to identify areas where ivermectin distribution can be stopped safely and elimination is sustainable.”

Director of TDR Dr John Reeder said: “We are happy that the work we funded has leveraged this grant which will, in turn, support TDR’s objectives.”

La Trobe Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Industry Engagement) Professor Susan Dodds congratulated Associate Professor Grant and said the funding will help further his research.

“This is a fantastic achievement for Warwick. La Trobe is proud to see his dedication recognised on such a prestigious and international scale,” Professor Dodds said.

“His work reflects the high calibre of research at La Trobe and shows how the University is working to address the key challenges of our time in Australia and around the world.”