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Washington University Team Wins $2M for River Blindness Biomarkers, Molecular Dx

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine have received a nearly $2 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to identify biomarkers and develop a molecular diagnostic test for onchocerciasis, commonly called river blindness.

The disease, which is caused by the parasitic worm Onchocerca volvulus and causes visual impairment, skin lesions, and severe itching, affects around 37 million people, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa but also in Latin America.

“We have most of the tools we need to eliminate this disease, but improved diagnostic methods are necessary to help steer the program," Gary Weil, an infectious disease specialist at Washington University, said in a statement.

The current test for diagnosing onchocerciasis does not detect the presence of adult female worms, which can live in nodules under the skin for years and can cause new cases of the disease when the effects of treatment wears off.

The World Health Organization has launched a massive public health campaign to control the disease, and each year the medication to prevent infection is distributed to over 100 million people.

Weil's team, working with Washington University Professor Reid Townsend and Assistant Professor Makedonka Mitreva, will search for genetic biomarkers that indicate the presence of living adult female worms in urine and blood samples. Townsend's specialty is proteomics and Mitreva is an authority on the genomes of nematodes, including the worm that causes river blindness.

In the project's first year, Weil and his partners will focus their efforts on identifying biomarkers, and in the second they will try to develop a test that can accurately and easily detect the presence of the worm.