Drug Discovery for Schistosomiasis with Dr. Thavy Long: More Funding for Clinical Trials Needed

Ambre Lambert, an MSc. Chemistry Student at McGill University who’s passionate about NTDs spoke with Dr. Thavy Long to learn more about her NTD research at the Institute of Parasitology at McGill University. Read more on their conversation here!

1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, what you do, and how you got started in your (NTD) Research?

My name is Dr. Thavy Long, and I am an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Parasitology at McGill University. I did my PhD in France, working on the worm parasite schistosoma mansoni. I was intrigued by how these organisms can cause so much harm to individuals. It was while working on infectious diseases that I realized what NTDs were. My passion for NTDs grew over time, especially for finding new therapies. Now, as an assistant professor, schistosomiasis has become the focus of my research. There are only a few labs [in Canada] working on schistosomiasis with the same mission, which is to help find new treatments for the poorest people in the world.

2. How did you carry out this research? 

I have two different types of research. I’m working on human diseases caused by worm parasites, [particularly] schistosomiasis and looking at potential targets against this disease. I am interested in a family of proteins known as the nuclear hormone receptors, which play an essential role in schistosome development. I’m also investigating the different strategies employed by the parasites to evade the host’s immune response. So, this aspect of my research aims to better understand the biology of the parasite and how it interacts with their host to discover novel therapies against schistosoma mansoni.

Another aspect of my research is on veterinary diseases and especially on heartworm parasites and the development of resistance to current therapies. These heartworm parasites mostly affect companion animals, but they are close relatives of brugia malayi, another NTD responsible for human filariasis. Therefore, what we discover in heartworms can be translated to human health.  

3. Can you describe the global health burden of the NTD that your work focuses on?

Schistosomiasis affects over 240 million people in the world, and about 250,000 people die every year. Schistosomiasis accounts for the loss of 1.8 million DALYs for Disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) which correspond to all the years of life that are lost due to premature mortality and the years lived with a disability (YLDs) So, there are 1.8 million years that were lost due to being infected with this disease. 

4. Why is the disease that you focus on considered neglected? What is currently being done to address it, and what are areas for improvement?

It affects the poorest in developing countries. Few people know what these diseases are, and pharma companies aren’t interested in developing new treatments against those diseases because they will not make money out of them. Fortunately, Merck donates praziquantel, but because it has administered [it] for years, [this] raises concerns about resistance to the drug.

I have been working on drug discovery projects against schistosomiasis for years. And while academia has the expertise and the technology to advance the research, whenever we had a target, we often faced a wall because we cannot go further than pre-clinical studies. The clinical studies are too expensive, and we are often unable to develop the clinical trial.

More funding, specifically in clinical trials, is needed. Thanks to more significant interest, companies are now sharing their drug libraries through collaborative agreement so we can test them against the parasite. However, there is still a gap in clinical trials. We need countries’ government support to get more involved in NTD research and help fund fundamental science and clinical trials in NTDs. It would help developing nations that don’t have the budgets to develop treatment for this disease. 

5. What are some key personal learnings through your schistosomiasis research?

I learned that maintaining the research takes a lot of effort and energy. Schistosomiasis is a challenging model to work with. I can say that over the years, I have seen fewer people working on schistosomiasis. Most researchers working on this at the beginning of my PhD are now slowly retiring. Yet, the current status of schistosomiasis in the world is still the same since I started to work on this disease, but there’s little renewal of interest in the disease (this is my personal feeling). I want to be hopeful, but while the company Merck has given a lot of praziquantel (the primary drug against schistosomiasis) for treatment, there is still a need to collaborate and keep raising interest because, at the moment, the disease is not diminishing and since praziquantel has been used in mass drug administration (MDA), there is a fear of emerging drug resistance.

6. What are some ways in which you’ve been able to engage students and young professionals in NTD work?

I’ve been the leader of a Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQS) grant which aims to develop science communication around parasitology, especially the parasites that the McGill Institute of Parasitology is working on, which are mainly pathogens causing NTDs. With student volunteers, we visit or host some high schools and Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel (cégep)students to talk about our mission and raise awareness about these diseases. 

It is one thing that I’m really proud of, and I think the graduate students who are involved in those outreach activities are really pleased to take this message to people who don’t know anything about NTDs. 

The goal is to talk about NTDs, not only in academia but to the larger public. With this grant opportunity, we want to visit community centres and libraries to raise awareness about these diseases that [many have not] heard about. 

7. What would you like Canadians to know about the work that you do?

That it’s important, it’s relevant; that schistosomiasis affects millions of people in low- and middle- income countries and this contributes to their poverty because it is a chronic disease that prevents people from working.  Working on schistosomiasis can help millions of people [live] a better life, and we need more people interested in this disease.