Chem­istry pro­fessor Michael Pol­lastri and his team of 12 post-​​doctoral, grad­uate and under­grad­uate stu­dents are com­bining their sci­ence skills and ide­alism to bring atten­tion — and solu­tions — to dis­eases neglected by Big Pharma research.

Neglected trop­ical dis­eases, such as sleeping sick­ness and Chagas dis­ease, affect the poorest parts of the world, where unsafe water, poor san­i­ta­tion and lim­ited access to basic health care are common. The dis­eases are typ­i­cally trans­mitted by insects, and can result in debil­i­ta­tion or death.

Pol­lastri says these dis­eases are neglected by the phar­ma­ceu­tical industry because they would not be able to recoup or profit from the bil­lions of dol­lars spent on drug research and development.

It is not nec­es­sarily that the prob­lems of cre­ating a drug for these neglected dis­eases are intrin­si­cally more dif­fi­cult, it’s that there hasn’t been a con­certed effort from industry to do so,” said Pol­lastri, who spe­cial­izes in med­i­c­inal chem­istry and chem­ical technology.

Since receiving funding from the National Insti­tutes of Health in the spring of 2009, Pol­lastri has focused on research that will expe­dite the drug-​​discovery process for neglected dis­eases. The effort sup­ports Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to use-​​inspired research, with a focus on global chal­lenges in health, secu­rity and sustainability.

There are very few people working in this area, and I felt we could make a big impact,” he said.

Pol­lastri and his research team col­lab­o­rate with leading experts from across the globe, including Eng­land, Spain, Switzer­land and the United States, whose focus is on African try­panoso­mi­asis, or sleeping sick­ness, and other neglected diseases.

In his lab at North­eastern, he and his team repur­pose existing small mol­e­c­ular com­pounds being used by big com­pa­nies and modify them to try to inhibit the par­a­sites asso­ci­ated with the dis­eases. They then ship them all over the world to be tested by their research collaborators.

After testing the mol­e­cules, the experts upload the data to a shared data­base, which pro­vides Pol­lastri and his team with the infor­ma­tion nec­es­sary for the next phase of development.

This is how a drug com­pany works. Except nor­mally, chemists and biol­o­gists are in adja­cent labs and ours are all over the world,” Pol­lastri said.

They quickly found that one com­pound, which is used by a leading phar­ma­ceu­tical com­pany for cancer treat­ment, was incred­ibly potent at killing par­a­sites related to sleeping sick­ness in cul­ture tests and in animals.

This is not the norm,” Pol­lastri explained. “Drug dis­covery nor­mally takes a very long time.”

Pol­lastri left a leading phar­ma­ceu­tical com­pany to pursue this research. He was attracted to North­eastern because he was impressed with the under­grad­uate stu­dents who com­plete co-​​ops in the industry. “When they come back to the lab, they know the lan­guage of indus­trial drug dis­covery, they know how to run exper­i­ments,” he said.

Said Murray Gibson, dean of the Col­lege of Sci­ence: “Thanks to inno­v­a­tive approaches to repur­posing drug devel­op­ment, Mike hopes to leverage the mas­sive eco­nomic engine that has led to block­buster drugs and combat neglected diseases.”

Pollastri’s research was con­ducted through the Center for Drug Dis­covery at North­eastern, which is com­mitted to finding novel med­ica­tions and devel­oping new approaches and tech­nolo­gies aimed at improving the dis­covery of new ther­a­peutic drugs.