Notre Dame receives record-breaking research grant for disease prevention
Grace McDermott | Wednesday, February 27, 2019
Notre Dame recently received a record-breaking grant of $33.7 million to conduct research on the prevention of mosquito-borne diseases using a new spatial repellent product that works to reduce mosquito densities and fight diseases like malaria, dengue, Zika and chikungunya.
Unitaid, an international health organization, agreed to fund the five-year project after a long and competitive proposal process. For the scientists behind the project, though, the amount of money was not of primary importance.
“We like to focus on the impact of the science rather than the monetary value,” the project’s principal investigator, John Grieco, said. “The value is something the University looks at. For us, it’s more the impact we’re having on human health. When you work alongside these communities and individuals, you see the struggles that they have day-to-day. If we can see a product through to reduce disease in these communities, that’s the success for us.”
Notre Dame Research, the central department that oversees infrastructure and management for student and faculty research on campus, has been particularly involved in this project due to the magnitude of the grant.
“Dr. Grieco came to us right away and said, ‘This is going to be big,’” vice president of research Robert Bernhard said. “You could see in the announcement that they were looking for some pretty sophisticated project management.”
Grieco and his team continued to work with Unitaid during a 19-month proposal process, one of the longest he has ever been through, he said. However, his work with spatial repellent products has spanned much longer. Grieco and Nicole Achee, a medical entomologist who serves as the scientific director of the project, have been working on developing spatial repellent products for over two decades.
The process began when Achee was invited to speak about spatial repellent research at a conference in Madrid, Grieco said. Funding representatives from Unitaid were present in the audience, and when Unitaid sent out a general call for proposals, several people from the organization were already familiar with their work. Though this didn’t guarantee a grant, Grieco said it was certainly an advantage.
“When we first started working with spatial repellents, people thought there was no such thing,” Grieco said. “It’s been a long process on getting recognition that they actually have a function in reducing vector-borne disease. Now, we’re trying to have the World Health Organization formally recognize the utility of spatial repellents for use against malaria and other vector-borne diseases.”
In order to receive the World Health Organization’s formal recognition, Grieco and his team must conduct clinical trials and operational studies. The clinical trials, which will take place in controlled environments in Kenya and Sri Lanka, will examine the effectiveness of the spatial repellent product over a period of one to two years, Achee said.
“We’re not trying to make a better product, we’re trying to make a product to help existing tools,” she said. “In some settings, it could be that the spatial repellent is the only product used, or it could be added onto existing strategies.”
The product could be especially effective in places where the spread of vector-borne diseases is difficult to prevent using current methods, including refugee camps, where many people live in tents or three-walled structures.
Achee said after the clinical trials, the team will conduct operational studies in displaced persons camps in Mali and Uganda to determine the effectiveness of different distribution methods for the product.
“We need an understanding of how well it works in a real-world setting,” Achee said. “We’re looking at how to distribute products to achieve the greatest coverage, and how many products can be distributed over what period of time [and] to how many people.”
While developing and researching their product, Grieco and his team have found some unexpected results that contribute toward their ultimate goal of reducing vector-borne diseases.
“The more we study them, the harder it becomes for us to narrow down what the true effects are,” Grieco said. “Originally, we thought that mosquitoes would pick up the chemical in the air and move away from the area. But now through some of our research, we’ve found that they impact on biting, mating and many other behaviors. They’re causing a disruption in the mosquito lifestyle, which has an impact on the disease.”
Bernhard said researchers at Notre Dame have a history of working with infectious, neglected tropical diseases that goes back to the 1940s.
“We believe that being a force for good in the world means that we need to have some of our programs be more applied and in-the-field,” Bernhard said. “It’s part of the bigger strategy to reach out and be involved in research that has an impact.”