Shining a light on forgotten diseases

In research, every day different methods are used to discover something new, whether it is a new disease, medicine, or something else. Often these methods were developed long ago and are confirmed to be doing what they are supposed to do. However, as technology develops so do new methods. This is exactly what Professor Steven Williams’ lab is doing at Smith College – developing new methods to be used in research and diagnostics.

It was fascinating, listening to the Research Associate at Williams’ lab, Mary Doherty, speak about the research that is done in their laboratory, which mostly revolves around developing diagnostic methods for neglected tropical diseases.

While people are often focused on malaria, HIV, and the sort (for a good reason), there are many other diseases that don’t nearly get as much attention as they should, for example, river blindness (Onchocerciasis) is caused by a parasitic worm carried by blackflies. Over a million people are blind or have impaired vision in Africa due to it. Yet many people around the world have probably never heard of this disease.

To bring more attention and better solutions to eliminate the world of different tropical diseases, Williams’ lab at Smith College is working out methods to find and diagnose these diseases. The methods they develop are available for everyone around the world to use. Currently, they are working with researchers all over Africa to be closer to where using these methods could benefit the most.

The current focus of Willams’ lab is on neglected tropical diseases of parasitic origin, like Onchocerciasis. So far PCR-Elisa has been used to diagnose this disease, but that method is not very specific since it’s not able to make a difference between human and cattle disease vectors. Now a new method has been developed at Williams’ lab using qPCR, which is more sensitive and specific. However, to test out and use the method, laboratories in Africa and other tropical regions have to have easy access to all the components in the method protocol like the qPCR mix.

To solve that issue, Solis BioDyne comes in. Our products are room-temperature stable in liquid format and can be sent in small envelopes, making sending qPCR mixes very easy and affordable, allowing poorer regions, that are most affected by Onchocerciasis, to adopt this protocol. In addition, the mix already includes all the necessary components for the qPCR (except the template, primers, and probes), which makes it easy to use, and less prone to contamination. Currently, researchers all over Africa are being trained to use this new qPCR method to diagnose river blindness.

          Participants at training session at Smith’s campus in Northampton, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Steven Williams.

This diagnostic test helps to find how much disease is in the population to understand whether the strategies to eliminate Onchocerciasis are working or not. Unfortunately, it is not possible to completely get rid of it. There are drugs used to treat people infected by the parasite. The problem is that the drug kills parasites only in their larval state, but not the adult ones. The treatment is needed for long enough to kill the parasites. However, the larva or the adult will not necessarily harm people, they might just use people as hosts. This makes it very difficult to understand how many people might be infected since not all are exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

Mary Doherty, PhD says that it would be great to resolve the issue of neglected tropical diseases. While it is what their lab is currently focused on, they are sure they can find something else to be interested in once they have solved the current problem troubling the world.

In general, Williams’ lab loves developing new methods and testing out all kinds of new products and technologies, which could help improve how science and diagnostics are done today. It has been a pleasure working with them and we hope to continue doing that in the future.

Product used: HOT FIREPol® Probe qPCR Mix Plus (ROX)

“Solis BioDyne’s HOT FIREPol® mix worked better than lyophilized alternatives that we tested. Instead of producing a master mix, lyophilizing it, and sending it, we got all from HOT FIREPol®, which made the work a lot easier,” said Mary Doherty, PhD.

Doherty, M., Grant, J. R., Pilotte, N., Bennuru, S., Fischer, K., Fischer, P. U., Lustigman, S., Nutman, T. B., Pfarr, K., Hoerauf, A., Unnasch, T. R., Hassan, H. K., Wanji, S., Lammie, P. J., Ottesen, E., Mackenzie, C., & Williams, S. A. (2023). Optimized strategy for real-time qPCR detection of Onchocerca volvulus DNA in pooled Simulium sp. blackfly vectors. PLoS neglected tropical diseases17(12), e0011815.

The Task Force for Global Health (2023). Scientists from seven African countries train to use next-gen river blindness diagnostic tool. Retrieved from