The University of New Mexico announced recently that it has two Grand Challenges Explorations winners, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Distinguished Professor Eric Loker, and Associate Professor Coenraad Adema, both from the UNM Department of Biology, will each pursue innovative global health and development research projects. Loker’s study is titled, “Amphistome Flukes to Control Schistosomes in African Snails,” while Adema’s study is titled, “Sentinel System for Detection of Schistosome Transmission.”

Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) funds individuals worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges.  Loker’s and Adema’s projects are two of more than 80 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 11 grants announced recently by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

To receive funding, Loker and Adema, and other Grand Challenges Explorations Round 11 winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a bold idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas that included development of the next generation condom, agriculture development, and neglected tropical diseases.  

Distinguished Professor of Biology Eric Loker.

Loker, along with colleagues from the Kenya Medical Research Institute, will test whether parasitic flatworms known as amphistome flukes can compete with the human parasite Schistosoma mansoni with the goal of helping prevent human infections. These two types of worms co-inhabit the same snail species.

The investigators will harvest large quantities of amphistome eggs from the rumens of routinely slaughtered goats and cattle, and use temperature and light to induce miracidia (larva) to hatch in the laboratory. These will then be tested for their ability to infect schistosome-transmitting snails and to block or prevent schistosome infections in these snails. This low-tech, low-cost approach is more environmentally friendly than current chemical approaches, and its application to transmission sites can be easily halted once infection rates are under control.

“Some neglected tropical diseases are really neglected, and schistosomiasis is one of them, even though it infects over 210 million people,” Loker said. “For decades we have relied on the simple expedient of mass drug administration to limit morbidity and slow transmission of this disease. But now, there is a growing realization that without some means to limit the extent of schistosome development in their obligatory snail hosts, we will not be able to stop transmission.

“The support we have received from the Gates Foundation is timely – it will help us zero in on ways to reduce transmission, hopefully assisting the World Health Organization in achieving its goal of elimination of human schistosomiasis as a public health problem by 2025. But... we have a long way yet to go.”  

Associate Professor Coenraad Adema

Adema will develop a device to attract, capture and display a signal from the parasitic flatworm Schistosoma mansoni in order to determine transmission risks and support control efforts. He will confirm the reported attraction of the parasite larvae to particular chemicals (chemo attractants) and then analyze whether the subsequent release of parasite enzymes can induce a color change that can be quantitatively detected using a chromogenic substrate. A prototype floating detection device carrying the most effective chemo-attractant and substrate will be developed that also enables recovery of parasite DNA for molecular-based detection.

“I will integrate previous insights from different fields of biology to better determine the infection risk for human schistosomiasis, a parasite-caused, neglected tropical disease,” Adema said.

About Grand Challenges Explorations
Grand Challenges Explorations is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Launched in 2008, over 850 people in more than 50 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants.  The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization.  The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short two-page online applications and no preliminary data required.  Initial grants of US$100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to US $1 million.