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The project will be aimed at better treatments for river blindness

NEW YORK – New York Blood Center’s Sara Lustigman, PhD, will be a collaborator in a project to develop new treatments for onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness, a devastating parasitic infection common in sub-Saharan Africa and in few foci of Central and South America. River blindness is classified as a neglected tropical disease by the World Health Organization (WHO) and is targeted for elimination by 2030.

The research project entitled “Integrative approach for accelerating filarial worm drug discovery to treat river blindness” has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) totaling more than $2 million. The long-term goal of this project is to develop new drug candidates that will allow us to ultimately eliminate this disease that affects millions of the world’s most vulnerable populations in mostly poor, tropical or sub-tropical developing countries.

Sara Lustigman is Head of the Laboratory of Molecular Parasitology at the New York Blood Center (NYBC) and a member of the Lindsley F. Kimball Research Institute (LFKRI). The Lindsley F. Kimball Research Institute is the research branch of the New York Blood Center, known for efforts that have paved the way for new blood-related products, techniques and therapies and has resulted in numerous landmark patents and licenses.

“This grant provides us with the opportunity to develop novel therapeutic macrofilaricidal drugs that kill directly the adult worms and thus expand treatment options that could reduce the burden of Onchocerca volvulus infections,” said Sara Lustigman. “I am excited to build on my research and work alongside my talented colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Drs. Makedonka Mitreva and James W. Janetka.”

River blindness has affected millions of people, causing about 270,000 people to become blind and 1.2 million people to become visually impaired. River blindness is spread by blackflies that are common near fast-moving rivers. The current treatments for river blindness only prevent transmission of the disease and cannot eliminate an already established infection, making new and complementary treatments for the disease essential.

Sara Lustigman has been with the New York Blood Center and Lindsley F. Kimball Research Institute for over thirty years. She has spent years studying the biology and host-parasite interactions of Onchocerca volvulus, the parasite that causes river blindness. This has allowed the identification of key pathways and molecules that are essential for parasite development, propagation and survival. This information can be used to identify new therapies for river blindness and will be used as one of the bases for this project.