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Seattle scientists to test world’s first vaccine against ‘black fever’ – leishmaniasis

Boy with kala azar, viscerial leishmaniasis

There are many neglected diseases out there but not many as prevalent or as ravaging as visceral leishmaniasis, also known as black fever or kala azar — the ‘parasitic version of AIDS.’

Scientists at Seattle’s Infectious Disease Research Institute will soon begin testing an experimental vaccine they have designed to work against the most deadly form of this common parasitic disease spread by the bite of sand flies.

Leishmaniasis, in both its cutaneous (surface of the skin) and visceral (internal organ) forms, infects an estimated half million people every year on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. It is the second most common parasitic disease after malaria, but has until recently gotten little attention as a major global health problem.

Because the parasite attacks blood cells, immune system cells and also invades organs and bone marrow much like HIV, visceral leishmaniasis is sometimes called ‘parasitic AIDS.’

“Visceral leishmaniasis is a persistent and deadly global health problem,” said Steve Reed, IDRI founder and Chief Scientific Officer, who led the over twenty years of preclinical vaccine work. “Our partnership with India will speed the development of an effective vaccine and accelerate its control.”

The vaccine against visceral leishmaniasis (VL) that IDRI has created will be tested first for safety on 36 volunteers in Seattle and then the Phase I study will be expanded to sites in India, which suffers from a disproportionately high caseload of the disease.

The non-profit Seattle-based research organization has been working on leishmaniasis for decades but received a major boost in 2006 when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded IDRI $32 million to find a vaccine against VL, kala azar.

As part of the grant, the Gates Foundation requires research organizations also develop a plan to make vaccines or drugs affordable in poor countries.

To reduce costs of the new vaccine, should it prove effective, IDRI is transferring its vaccine technology to an Indian drug firm, Gennova Biopharmaceuticals. Gennova has already opened a vaccine development center in Pune, India, where the company is based.

“With this clinical trial, we hope to launch a new era in the fight against Visceral Leishmaniasis,” said Franco Piazza, Medical Director at IDRI and leader of the vaccine’s clinical development. “For the first time, an advanced vaccine to prevent this devastating disease is being tested in people.”

A sand fly bite

While leishmaniasis is treatable today, the treatments are fairly toxic, cumbersome and often too expensive to use in poor communities. Some 500,000 people get infected every year, with an estimate 50,000 deaths per year, and the disease appears to be spreading.

Just as with mosquitoes, sand flies that carry the parasite appear to be expanding their range worldwide due to climate change, migration and other global changes.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.