A University of Dundee researcher has been awarded £1.5 million to investigate a parasite that leads to the death of tens of thousands of children around the world each year and blights the lives of millions more.
Dr Mattie Christine Pawlowic, a researcher at the Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infectives Research (WCAIR) within Dundee’s School of Life Sciences, has been awarded a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship to develop her research into the fundamental biology of Cryptosporidium. These parasites cause chronic diarrhoea, or cryptosporidiosis, which is estimated to kill 48,000 children under the age of five annually as well as leading to 4.2 million disability adjusted life-years.
Cryptosporidium is a waterborne parasite, which makes transmission difficult to control. Typical water treatment methods, such as chlorination, do not kill Cryptosporidium and effective techniques are either expensive or too impractical to be used in large population centres. Cryptosporidiosis commonly leads to chronic diarrhoea that can prove fatal and commonly occurs in areas with poor sanitation. Waterborne outbreaks can also occur in developed countries when there is an issue with water treatment, or in recreational waters.
Children, older people and the immunocompromised are most likely to develop cryptosporidiosis. The only available treatment drug for this cannot be given to children or immunocompromised, meaning these groups are particularly at risk from the potentially devastating impact of the disease. Diarrhoeal disease is responsible for 10% of the deaths of children under five years old worldwide and cryptosporidiosis is the second leading cause of this.
Dr Pawlowic’s research focuses on how Cryptosporidium protects itself from destruction, particularly a protective outer shell that makes it resistant to low-cost water treatment.
“Very little is known about how Cryptosporidium build this shell but new genetic tools that I have developed allow us to study this process for the first time,” she said. “Understanding Cryptosporidium transmission may illuminate new targets for desperately needed therapeutics, but the first step is to better understand the biology of this parasite and how it causes disease.
“Cryptosporidiosis is a really big problem. People often think of diarrhoea as being something unpleasant but largely harmless, but the chronic diarrhoea caused by cryptosporidiosis can be fatal on its own or cause lifelong health problems. Diarrhoea kills more children than malaria each year, and chronic diarrhoea compounds the malnutrition that many children in developing countries experience. This can lead to a number of complications including stunted growth and problems with cognitive development.”
The Sir Henry Dale Fellowships scheme is a partnership between the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust. Fellowships are open to early-career scientists ready to lead their own independent research programme who have already made important contributions to their area of speciality.