UGA professor Dan Colley is leading a global effort to control a debilitating disease that infects 200 million people worldwide
Halfway into a lecture on a disease that most people haven’t heard about and can barely pronounce, Dan Colley displays a slide titled “The Faces of Schistosomiasis.” It’s pronounced SHIS-toe-SO-my-uh-sis, by the way.)
On the left side is an adolescent boy with a belly so swollen that it looks like he’s pregnant. The real problem is that parasitic worms have been breeding in his bloodstream for so long that their eggs have clogged his liver, causing it and other internal organs to swell. On the right side of the slide is a picture of a dozen elementary school children in a dusty village near Cairo, Egypt. One of them is waving to the camera, and they’re all smiling.
The prevalence of schistoso-miasis in this village is 70 percent, the professor of microbiology tells his audience, many of whom are undergraduates aspiring to be public health workers. “
So 70 percent of those kids have schistosomiasis, and one of them is going to get sick like this kid,” Colley says, motioning to the boy with the distended stomach, “if we don’t treat them.”
These children near Cairo, Egypt, live in a village where 70 percent of the population has a potentially deadly parasitic disease that stunts physical and cognitive growth. UGA professor Dan Colley has spent nearly 40 years searching for ways to curb schistosomiasis for the benefit of these children and 200 million other infected people worldwide. Special photo
Schistosomiasis and other neglected diseases have been at the center of Colley’s professional life for nearly 40 years. Now as director of the UGA Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, he is embarking on what could be his biggest challenge yet.As the principal investigator on an $18.7 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Colley will be leading an international team of scientists on a quest to reduce dramatically the burden of a disease that currently afflicts 200 million people, most of them in impoverished communities in Africa and South America.
As a young post-doctoral researcher at Yale who studied the immune system on a cellular level, Colley didn’t know what schistosomiasis was when he volunteered to teach an immunology class in Brazil and to work on a project to help control the disease there. In the decades since, he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on schistosomiasis, regularly traveling the globe to share his insights and to continue a longstanding research project in Kenya. He and his colleagues have found that treating people for schistosomiasis increases the amount of time it takes for them to be rein-fected, suggesting that a protein or multiple proteins in dead or dying worms activates the immune system. Identifying and isolating these proteins may ultimately lead to a vaccine for a disease that kills up to 200,000 people each year, impairs the growth and learning of children, and leaves millions of adults too sick to support their families.
The threadlike parasitic worms that cause schistosomiasis can live in the bloodstream for up to 40 years. Understanding how they evade the immune system for so long could revolutionize organ transplantation by eliminating the need for immunosuppressant drugs. Special photo
Colley also sees benefits of his research closer to home. He explains that understanding how the parasitic worms can live in the blood vessels for decades without triggering an immune response could revolutionize organ transplantation by eliminating the need for immunosuppressant drugs. People with schistosomiasis are less prone to allergies and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, and understanding why may shed light on those conditions, too.
The Gates Foundation grant—the largest medical grant in the university’s history—is focused on identifying the most efficient, cost-effective and sustainable way to administer drug treatment to reduce the number of people who are sickened and killed by schistosomiasis and, where possible, to eliminate it entirely.
“Fundamentally, what I care about is understanding this situation well enough to do something about it,” Colley says. “These are real people and they have real lives.”
—Sam Fahmy is the science writer for the UGA News Service.