Saying Goodnight to Sleeping Sickness

Nigel Yarlett, PhD, of the Haskins Laboratories discusses how researchers are working to bring new hope to sufferers of long-ignored diseases.

Nigel Yarlett, PhD, and student researchers

The Haskins Laboratories, which have been at Pace since 1970, have been centered on researching possible cures for diseases that are out of the public spotlight. “We work on things that aren’t stylish—not in vogue. And consequentially, things that aren’t typically funded to a great extent,” says Nigel Yarlett, PhD, director of the Haskins Laboratories at Pace University.

Recently, parasitologists at the Lab have focused their attention on new methods of treatment for Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT), also known as sleeping sickness. Researchers are working to develop compounds that will help treat sleeping sickness in the nearly half-a-million infected inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. “Some drugs were developed in the 1920s to treat the illnesses, but these drugs had an arsenic base,” Yarlett says. “For those being treated with these drugs, death occurred more quickly than it would have if they hadn’t been treated!… These are the first new drugs [developed to treat HAT] in 30 years,” says Yarlett, “We’re very excited.”

The researchers have discovered a new line of compounds that have been effective in curing mice and are now being tested on larger mammals. They will be going into clinical trials with a cohort of 1,000 human patients in Africa later this year. They plan to target villages in Africa, whose inhabitants are cut off from any sort of medical access. “For the people living in these villages, this sort of sickness is just a way of life,” says Yarlett.

Additionally, workers at the Haskins Laboratories are attempting to develop a first line of treatment for a far more global issue—cryptosporidiosis, a waterborne illness that causes chronic diarrhea. Its major impact has been among those with weakened immune systems, including those who are HIV+, receiving cancer treatments, or those that have undergone organ transplantation. “Cryptosporidosis is one of the major causes of death in HIV+ people and currently there is nothing available to treat it,” Yarlett says. However Yarlett hopes that the great minds at Pace will soon be able to help in that front as well.

“In the world of parasitology, the Haskins Lab is recognized worldwide,” says Yarlett. “It’s one of the reasons I came to Pace and I’m proud to be a part of such a great asset to the University.”

The Haskins Laboratories was founded in 1935 at General Electrical and Union College by four young and innovative scientists, one of whom became its namesake, Caryl Haskins, a physicist and geneticist. In 1970 it split into two divisions, the Microbiology Division, under Seymour Hutner (one of the original scientists) affiliated with Pace University, and the Speech Recognition and Cognition Division affiliated with Yale University. It is funded by a number of sources, including  the National Institutes of Health (in collaboration with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas), Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), and Genzyme Corp and works  in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies Scynexis and Anacor.

For more information about the work being done at the Haskins Laboratories, click here.

Editor’s Note: Since publication, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative has recognized the work of Dyson Professors Cyrus Bacchi, PhD, and Nigel Yarlett, PhD, of the Haskins Laboratories, with the Project of the Year 2011 Award for the development of the first new drug to go to clinical trial and the first new treatment for Human African Trypanosomiasis (“sleeping sickness”) in more than 40 years.