Could chemistry students be the key to tackling neglected diseases?

Visceral Leishmaniasis is the second-biggest parasitic killer in the world, yet most won’t have heard of it. It is caused by parasites that migrate to internal organs like the liver, spleen or bone marrow, causing them to swell and creating fever, weight loss and low blood cells.

Second only to Malaria, every year this disease affects up to 400,000 people across 80 countries and is fatal if untreated. Yet despite its impact, it is still on the WHO’s list of neglected diseases. This is partially because Leishmaniasis affects those living in poverty, meaning there’s no prospect of making a profit from developing drugs to treat it.

“These are diseases which are big problems but they just don’t get the same headlines as malaria or T.B.,” says Ben Perry, Senior Discovery Manager at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), based in Geneva. However, DNDi is pioneering a new framework that taps into a huge under-used source of synthesizing power to search for visceral Leishmaniasis drugs: chemistry students. Could this herald a new approach to tackling neglected diseases?

DNDi’s new initiative, the Open Synthesis Network (OSN), is comprised of chemistry students around the world, co-ordinated by DNDi, synthesising the hundreds of ‘lead’ molecules DNDi wants to test. Whenever pharmaceutical companies have tried to work with universities via similar approaches, they have often failed due to the secrecy issues around intellectual property. The OSN is completely open-source, and DNDi’s ‘no intellectual property’ philosophy is the key to getting universities on board. The project’s structure also ensures students can be assessed on the work.

Usually, DNDi contracts the work out to researchers in China or India, but there are several advantages to collaborating with students. Most obviously, students are a relatively low cost resource. “For these kinds of developing world disease projects there is often a lack of resources to do the chemistry so this is a really good way of progressing them,” says Professor Ed Tate, course director for the MRes in drug discovery and development at Imperial College London, which is one of the 5 universities currently involved.

They can also be more science-led and creative. “It’s not necessarily the most efficient way of making molecules,” says Perry, “but we get really interesting ideas from both the professors and also the students who are working on the project. It opens up research ideas and doors that we wouldn’t have necessarily even come close to.” According to Tate, students can explore things pharma companies can’t, because they aren’t doing science that fits into a business model.

The OSN provides unique opportunities for students too. All chemists must endure intensive practicals to learn lab techniques, but whereas usually the resulting chemicals are just waste, they would be making molecules that could end up being real drugs instead. “The dimensions this project has are quite different from most other opportunities you’d get at the university on its own,” says Tate. “It’s actually very representative of how people run projects in industry.” Real experience of medicinal chemistry is hard to come by as a student due to the secrecy of pharma companies, and students could be solving real-world problems.

The network is currently in ‘beta’ mode, but with other universities eager to be involved, Perry has big plans for it: “I am absolutely certain that there is a critical mass that you can reach where, as long as you have a good coordinator, in theory there’s no reason why this can’t be a perfectly legitimate and efficient way of doing drug discovery.” Tate is excited by the networking potential, saying “what I’d like to see is kind of a living community of students working across all these different universities, and also seeing all these people remaining associated with the programme.”

It’s too early to say whether the OSN will truly revolutionise the approach to neglected diseases, but Perry and Tate’s optimism is infectious. At the very least, it’s a step towards a solution for the thousands at risk from visceral Leishmaniasis.

Helena Spooner is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner image: students in lab,  Khamkhlai Thanet

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