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UNC Receives $22.6M Grant From Gates Foundation To Target African Sleeping Sickness

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In another step to combat deadly African sleeping sickness, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has presented a $22.6 million grant to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to fund a Phase III clinical trial of a drug to combat the disease.

A consortium of researchers that includes faulty at UNC will conduct the trial in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sudan and Angola. The drug must successfully complete the trial before it could be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"This new Gates foundation grant will fund the final stages of development and commercialization of what could be the first new drug for sleeping sickness in 50 years, and a major advance over current treatments," said Richard Tidwell, who is the principal investigator for the project. He also is a professor in UNC's schools of medicine and pharmacy.

The Gates Foundation awarded the consortium a grant of $15.1 million in 2000. Those funds were used to launch clinical trials.

More than 300,000 people in the sub-Saharan region of Africa have the disease. Another 60 million are at risk. Untreated cases are often fatal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

"Sleeping sickness is one of the most serious diseases in sub-Saharan Africa," said Thomas Brewer, senior program officer for infectious diseases in the Gates foundation's Global Health Program. "This research is exciting because it has the potential to usher in a new generation of treatment for the disease."

African sleeping sickness is also known as trypanosomiasis. It is a deadly parasitic disease that is transmitted by tsetse flies.

Current treatments require injections that are both painful and highly toxic, according to a statement from UNC.

The proposed drug, called pafuramidine, is less toxic and can be administered orally.

The research consortium will also study the effect of the drug on children ages 6-12, launch development of a formulation for use in children under 6, and develop an access program.

"The progress so far of the consortium led by Dr. Tidwell is both encouraging and exciting," said Dr. William Roper, dean of the UNC School of Medicine and chief executive officer of the UNC Health Care System. "The drug they discovered and developed could potentially save millions of people from a slow and very miserable death."

Other members of the consortium are from Georgia State University, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Ohio State University, the Swiss Tropical Institute, the Kenya Trypanosomiasis Research Institute and Immtech Pharmaceuticals.

Immtech, which is based in Vernon Hills, Il., is developing pafuramidine. The drug is the company's lead product. Immtech is responsible for regulatory and preclinical and clinical development activities required for licensure and for supplying the drug for the consortium.

The clinical trial is expected to get underway in December.

The consortium will study pafuramidine's effectiveness against the East African form of sleeping sickness. Trials thus far have focused on the more common West African form of the disease.

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