Grant Supports Research on African Sleeping Sickness Drug
Colorado College Assistant Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Amy Dounay ’96, who came to CC as a student on a Boettcher Scholarship and graduated with a B.A. in chemistry, has been awarded a $225,000 Boettcher Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Award. She is one of only seven scientists in the state to receive the award this year.
Award recipients represent “some of the finest scientific minds in the state,” said Tim Schultz, president and executive director of the Boettcher Foundation. “We are honored to have the opportunity to support their research, which has the potential to have significant impacts on human health.”
The three-year grant will support Dounay’s research on the design, synthesis, and evaluation of new drugs for African sleeping sickness. The funding supplements her recent $35,000 grant from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement to support the same research. The Boettcher Webb-Waring Award makes possible the hiring of a postdoctoral associate to assist in advancing the research, as well as supporting student researchers, equipment, and supplies.
Dounay’s research focuses on African sleeping sickness, also known as Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT), which threatens the lives of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans annually. Travelers to wildlife reserves in Kenya, Tanzania, and other areas in which HAT is endemic also are at risk. HAT is fatal if left untreated, causing convulsions and serious sleep disturbance that advance to coma and death. The disease is caused by parasites, which are transmitted to humans by the bite of a tsetse fly. Rising global temperatures are expected to increase the range of the tsetse fly in coming decades, leading to new and far-reaching outbreaks of HAT.
The only available HAT medicines, discovered in the 1920s to 1940s, do not meet current standards for drug efficacy or safety; nearly 25 percent of advanced-stage HAT patients do not respond to these medicines, and an additional 5 percent of patients die from adverse reactions to them. Additionally, no HAT medicines are available as pills, which would facilitate their distribution to patients. Instead, the currently available medicines must be administered intravenously in clinics over multiple days, presenting significant financial and logistical challenges to patients and medical clinics in the affected rural regions. Emerging resistance to current medicines is yet another concern. A safe, orally administered drug that is effective against HAT is urgently needed and could set the stage for eradication of the disease.
“Using computational modeling and ‘drug-hunting’ expertise, we have designed new drug molecules, with the goal of discovering a safe, affordable medicine with improved effectiveness against HAT,” Dounay said. “Our laboratory is currently focused on completing the chemical preparation of our first set of new test compounds, which will be evaluated for their ability to kill HAT-causing parasites. Further refinement and optimization of our initial compounds will lead us toward our goal of discovering a new medicine for HAT. Due to some similarities among parasite-borne diseases, we anticipate that this project also will benefit research on several other widespread tropical diseases, including malaria,” she said.
The Boettcher Foundation’s Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Program, established five years ago, helps early-career investigators in biomedical sciences advance their research and invests in science that can make significant contributions to human health. The grants are intended to help early-career scientists establish themselves and compete for major awards from federal agencies and private foundations.