Professor starts tropical disease journal to raise awareness

Students might be more concerned about fending off a cold than acquiring leprosy, but one professor hopes to draw more attention to neglected diseases such as these.

Peter Hotez, chair of the Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Diseases department, began a new scientific journal called Public Library of Science: Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Neglected tropical diseases are relatively unknown infectious diseases that are most predominate in rural areas, usually within developing countries. NTDs include leprosy, leishmaniasis, schistosomiasis and the human hookworm, the object of the Hotez’s latest research. Hotez hopes that the journal will improve collaboration and cooperation among researchers and experts studying NTDs.

But the aim of the new journal goes beyond medical research. Hotez said he hopes it will allow scientists to advocate for greater awareness and treatment of NTDs. He believes NTDs have been ignored not only by pharmaceutical companies, but also local, national and international communities.

“NTDs are below the radar screens of health services and politicians because they afflict populations that are often marginalized with little political voice,” he said. “Almost all of the major G8 initiatives.are specific for HIV/AIDS, malaria, TB. There is no such major initiative for the NTDs.”

Hotez’s effort to help some of the world’s poorest citizens has already caught the eye of several charitable organizations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently gave $1.1 million to the PLoS journal, and Hotez spoke about NTD’s with former President Jimmy Carter at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York last week.

“We are interested in developing vaccines for all the NTDs,” he said.

Few researchers have focused on NTDs in recent years, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Hotez said that of the nearly 1,400 drugs approved for use during the period from 1975 to1999, less than 0.5 percent have been for tropical diseases.

“Treatment for (the NTD) African Sleeping Sickness is currently Melarsoprol, a compound that contains arsenic and was developed in the 1940s and ’50s,” he said.

“We have now the entire genome in hand and could make new drugs were it not for the absence of a commercial market,” Hotez said.

Microbiology professor Maria Elena Bottazzi and Jeffery Bethony in the medical school both serve on the editorial board for the publication.

“It’s not very easy to get research published, especially when it involves the developing world,” Bottazzi said. “We’re excited to do more advocacy, not only with the scientific community, but also the general population.”

The PLoS journal will feature an innovative “open access” feature, by which any scientist, physician or public health official can contribute research to the journal’s Web site.

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