Scitech | McGill receives $1-million grant to fight parasitic diseases in Africa

Parasitology department will help develop medicines using African biodiversity

McGill recently received a $1-million grant to extend research aimed at developing medicines that will combat parasitic diseases. Timothy Geary, a scientist in McGill’s Parasitology department, will guide the project, which – by combining research in both Canada and Africa – aims to harness components of African biodiversity.

Parasitic illnesses – which include Lyme disease, malaria, and scabies – affect approximately 1 billion people worldwide in disease-endemic countries that lack the capacity to eliminate them, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. These debilitating diseases primarily stem from parasitic worms, called helminths, which live inside the human body. Geary’s research, which was jointly conducted with Éliane Ubalijoro, professor in McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development, focusses on developing new drugs to combat these increasingly resistant parasites. The researchers intend to identify and harness compounds from microbial and botanical sources that occur naturally in African biodiversity in order to develop cures.

Funding for the grant is provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Grand Challenges Canada, both non-profit organizations that seek to address the many challenges facing the developing world. This represents a significant humanitarian effort on behalf of the Canadian government, because it has allocated $225 million over five years to the Development Innovation Fund. Grand Challenges Canada is responsible for delivering that money in partnership with the International Development Research Centre and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The research was conducted in partnership with African scientists, notably Kelly Chibale of the University of Cape Town, and Berhanu Abegaz and Kerstin Marobela of the University of Botswana. Despite impressive contributions from McGill, the majority of the research is to be conducted in Africa at universities and in the field. “We hope to allow people who have these diseases to lead the discovery process for new cures for them,” Geary explained in an interview with The Daily. The proximity will likely allow for more successful research and effective implementation of cures, once they are found. “We want as much of the ownership of the intellectual property as possible to be theirs.”

The initiative indicates the significant role of both McGill and Canada on the international stage. It emphasizes the capacity of the Parasitology department at McGill and includes qualified professors from a variety of branches within the field. These professors are capable of making significant differences in global health and tropical medicine. Additionally, it highlights McGill’s effort to integrate advancements in science and technology from around the world. “International collaborations are very important for McGill, not just in the sense of going to Italy to view art, which is nice, but also in developing global research initiatives that can help solve significant health problems in other countries,” said Geary.

Furthermore, the project promotes Canada’s presence on the international stage as a whole and specifically in the area of global health. By addressing the parasitic diseases that plague so many, Canada continues to be a vital and capable actor in the international community that outside organizations and governments are eager to collaborate with.