Why Neglected Tropical Diseases Should Matter to Americans
Daisy Hernández was five years old when one of her favorite aunts was struck with a mysterious illness. Tía Dora had stayed behind in Colombia when Daisy's mother immigrated to Union City, New Jersey. A schoolteacher in her late 20s, she began suffering from fevers and abdominal pain, and her belly grew so big that people thought she was pregnant. Exploratory surgery revealed that her large intestine had swollen to ten times its normal size, and she was fitted with a colostomy bag. Doctors couldn't identify the underlying problem—but whatever it was, they said, it would likely kill her within a year or two.
Tía Dora's sisters in New Jersey—Hernández's mother and two other aunts—weren't about to let that happen. They pooled their savings and flew her to New York City, where a doctor at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center with a penchant for obscure ailments provided a diagnosis: Chagas disease. Transmitted by the bite of triatomine insects, commonly known as kissing bugs, Chagas is endemic in many parts of Latin America. It's caused by the parasite Trypanoma cruzi, which usually settles in the heart, where it feeds on muscle tissue. In some cases, however, it attacks the intestines or esophagus. Tía Dora belonged to that minority.
In 1980, U.S. immigration laws were more forgiving than they are today. Tía Dora was able to have surgery to remove a part of her colon, despite not being a citizen or having a green card. She eventually married a legal resident and began teaching Spanish at an elementary school. Over the next three decades, she earned a graduate degree, built a career, and was widowed. Meanwhile, Chagas continued its slow devastation. "Every couple of years, we were back in the hospital with her," Hernández recalls. "When I was in high school, she started feeling like she couldn't swallow anything. It was the parasite, destroying the muscles of her esophagus."
When Tía Dora died in 2010, at 59, her niece was among the family members at her bedside. By then, Hernández had become a journalist and fiction writer. Researching a short story about Chagas disease, she discovered that it affected an estimated 6 million people in South America, Central America, and Mexico—as well as 300,000 in the United States, most of whom were immigrants from those places. "I was shocked to learn it wasn't rare," she says. "That made me hungry to know more about this disease, and about the families grappling with it."
Hernández's curiosity led her to write The Kissing Bug, a lyrical hybrid of memoir and science reporting that was published in June. It also led her to another revelation: Chagas is not unique. It's among the many maladies that global health experts refer to as neglected tropical diseases—often-disabling illnesses that afflict 1.7 billion people worldwide, while getting notably less attention than the "big three" of HIV/AIDs, malaria, and tuberculosis. NTDs cause fewer deaths than those plagues, but they wreak untold suffering and economic loss.
Shortly before Hernández's book hit the shelves, the World Health Organization released its 2021-2030 roadmap for fighting NTDs. The plan sets targets for controlling, eliminating, or eradicating all the diseases on the WHO's list, through measures ranging from developing vaccines to improving healthcare infrastructure, sanitation, and access to clean water. Experts agree that for the campaign to succeed, leadership from wealthy nations—particularly the United States—is essential. But given the inward turn of many such countries in recent years (evidenced in movements ranging from America First to Brexit), and the continuing urgency of the COVID-19 crisis, public support is far from guaranteed.
As Hernández writes: "It is easier to forget a disease that cannot be seen." NTDs primarily affect residents of distant lands. They kill only 80,000 people a year, down from 204,000 in 1990. So why should Americans to bother to look?
Breaking the circle of poverty and disease
The World Health Organization counts 20 diseases as NTDs. Along with Chagas, they include dengue and chikungunya, which cause high fevers and agonizing pain; elephantiasis, which deforms victims' limbs and genitals; onchocerciasis, which causes blindness; schistosomiasis, which can damage the heart, lungs, brain, and genitourinary system; helminths such as roundworm and whipworm, which cause anemia, stunted growth, and cognitive disabilities; and a dozen more. Such ailments often co-occur in the same patient, exacerbating each other's effects and those of illnesses such as malaria.
NTDs may be spread by insects, animals, soil, or tainted water; they may be parasitic, bacterial, viral, or—in the case of snakebite envenoming—non-infectious. What they have in common is their longtime neglect by public health agencies and philanthropies. In part, this reflects their typically low mortality rates. But the biggest factor is undoubtedly their disempowered patient populations.
"These diseases occur in the setting of poverty, and they cause poverty, because of their chronic and debilitating effects," observes Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital for Vaccine Development. And historically, the everyday miseries of impoverished people have seldom been a priority for those who set the global health agenda.
That began to change about 20 years ago, when Hotez and others developed the conceptual framework for NTDs and early proposals for combating them. The WHO released its first roadmap in 2012, targeting 17 NTDs for control, elimination, or eradication by 2020. (Rabies, snakebite, and dengue were added later.) Since then, the number of people at risk for NTDs has fallen by 600 million, and 42 countries have eliminated at least one such disease. Cases of dracunculiasis—known as Guinea worm disease, for the parasite that creates painful blisters in a patient's skin—have dropped from the millions to just 27 in 2020.
Yet the battle is not over, and the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted prevention and treatment programs around the globe.
A new direction — and longstanding obstacles
The WHO's new roadmap sets even more ambitious goals for 2030. Among them: reducing by 90 percent the number of people requiring treatment for NTDs; eliminating at least one NTD in another 100 countries; and fully eradicating dracunculiasis and yaws, a disfiguring skin infection.
The plan also places an increased focus on "country ownership," relying on nations with high incidence of NTDs to design their own plans based on local expertise. "I was so excited to see that," says Kristina Talbert-Slagle, director of the Yale College Global Health Studies program. "No one is a better expert on how to address these situations than the people who deal with it day by day."
Another fresh approach is what the roadmap calls "cross-cutting" targets. "One of the really cool things about the plan is how much it emphasizes coordination among different sectors of the health system," says Claire Standley, a faculty member at Georgetown University's Center for Global Health Science and Security. "For example, it explicitly takes into account the zoonotic nature of many neglected tropical diseases—the fact that we have to think about animal health as well as human health when we tackle NTDs."
Whether this grand vision can be realized, however, will depend largely on funding—and that, in turn, is a question of political will in the countries most able to provide it. On the upside, the U.S. has ended its Trump-era feud with the WHO. "One thing that's been really encouraging," says Standley, "has been the strong commitment toward global cooperation from the current administration." Even under the previous president, the U.S. remained the single largest contributor to the global health kitty, spending over $100 million annually on NTDs—six times the figure in 2006, when such financing started.
On the downside, America's outlay has remained flat for several years, and the Biden administration has so far not moved to increase it. A "back-of-the-envelope calculation," says Hotez, suggests that the current level of aid could buy medications for the most common NTDs for about 200 million people a year. But the number of people who need treatment, he notes, is at least 750 million.
Up to now, the United Kingdom—long the world's second-most generous health aid donor—has taken up a large portion of the slack. But the UK last month announced deep cuts in its portfolio, eliminating 102 previously supported countries and leaving only 34. "That really concerns me," Hotez says.
The struggle for funds, he notes, is always harder for projects involving NTDs than for those aimed at higher-profile diseases. His lab, which he co-directs with microbiologist Maria Elena Bottazzi, started developing a COVID-19 vaccine soon after the pandemic struck, for example, and is now in Phase 3 trials. The team has been working on vaccines for Chagas, hookworm, and schistosomiasis for much longer, but trials for those potential game-changers lag behind. "We struggle to get the level of resources needed to move quickly," Hotez explains.
Two million reasons to care
One way to prompt a government to open its pocketbook is for voters to clamor for action. A longtime challenge with NTDs, however, has been getting people outside the hardest-hit countries to pay attention.
The reasons to care, global health experts argue, go beyond compassion. "When we have high NTD burden," says Talbert-Slagle, "it can prevent economic growth, prevent innovation, lead to more political instability." That, in turn, can lead to wars and mass migration, affecting economic and political events far beyond an affected country's borders.
Like Hernández's aunt Dora, many people driven out of NTD-wracked regions wind up living elsewhere. And that points to another reason to care about these diseases: Some of your neighbors might have them. In the U.S., up to 14 million people suffer from neglected parasitic infections—including 70,000 with Chagas in California alone.
When Hernández was researching The Kissing Bug, she worried that such statistics would provide ammunition to racists and xenophobes who claim that immigrants "bring disease" or exploit overburdened healthcare systems. (This may help explain some of the stigma around NTDs, which led Tía Dora to hide her condition from most people outside her family.) But as the book makes clear, these infections know no borders; they flourish wherever large numbers of people lack access to resources that most residents of rich countries take for granted.
Indeed, far from gaming U.S. healthcare systems, millions of low-income immigrants can't access them—or must wait until they're sick enough to go to an emergency room. Since Congress changed the rules in 1996, green card holders have to wait five years before they can enroll in Medicaid. Undocumented immigrants can never qualify.
Closing the great divide
Hernández uses a phrase borrowed from global health crusader Paul Farmer to describe this access gap: "the great epi divide." On one side, she explains, "people will die from cancer, from diabetes, from chronic illnesses later in life. On the other side of the epidemiological divide, people are dying because they can't get to the doctor, or they can't get medication. They don't have a hospital anywhere near them. When I read Dr. Farmer's work, I realized how much that applied to neglected diseases as well."
When it comes to Chagas disease, she says, the epi divide is embodied in the lack of a federal mandate for prenatal or newborn screening. Each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 300 babies in the U.S. are born with Chagas, which can be passed from the mother in utero. The disease can be cured with medication if treated in infancy. (It can also be cured in adults in the acute stage, but is seldom detected in time.) Yet the CDC does not require screening for Chagas—even though newborns are tested for 15 diseases that are less common. According to one study, it would be 10 times cheaper to screen and treat babies and their mothers than to cover the costs related to the illness in later years. Few states make the effort.
The gap that enables NTDs to persist, Hernández argues, is the same one that has led to COVID-19 death rates in Black and Latinx communities that are double those elsewhere in America. To close it, she suggests, caring is not enough.
"When I was working on my book," she says, "I thought about HIV in the '80s, when it had so much stigma that no one wanted to talk about it. Then activists stepped up and changed the conversation. I thought a lot about breast cancer, which was stigmatized for years, until people stepped forward and started speaking out. I thought about Lyme disease. And it wasn't only patients—it was also allies, right? The same thing needs to happen with neglected diseases around the world. Allies need to step up and make demands on policymakers. We need to make some noise."
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization— by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
The findings from 2008 to 2014 inspired Collins and his team to delve into how good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi can attack drug-resistant bacteria. In 2018, Collins and his team developed the engineered probiotic strategy. They tweaked a commonly found bacteria in yogurt called Lactococcus lactis.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
More scientists followed with more experiments. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.