African sleeping sick­ness, which cur­rently affects 30,000 people, starts out like the flu. Patients com­plain of fever, headaches and joint pain. But if Try­panosoma brucei, the par­a­site that causes the ill­ness, remains in the body long enough, it infil­trates the cen­tral ner­vous system and becomes fatal.

As its name implies, sleeping sick­ness occurs exclu­sively in sub-​​Saharan Africa, where Tsetse flies carry T. brucei and where the pop­u­la­tion is gen­er­ally too poor to war­rant interest from major drug devel­op­ment ventures.

 Michael Pol­lastri, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of chem­istry at North­eastern, has joined forces with the Open Lab at Glax­o­SmithK­line (GSK) and Spain’s National Research Council for Sci­en­tific Inves­ti­ga­tions (CSIC) to iden­tify new treat­ments for the dis­ease. The col­lab­o­ra­tion, ini­ti­ated by Pol­lastri and co-​​principal inves­ti­gator Miguel Navarro of CSIC, employs a high-​​throughput screen of 30,000 pre-​​existing GSK kinase inhibitors for their effec­tive­ness against T. brucei.

The work dove­tails with Northeastern’s focus on use-​​inspired research that addresses global chal­lenges in health, secu­rity and sustainability.

The symp­toms that develop in stage I of sleeping sick­ness sub­side after a few weeks, and most patients do not receive treat­ment until they begin dis­playing the neu­ro­log­ical symp­toms that result when the par­a­sites have invaded the brain (stage II). Because of this, Pol­lastri explains, “people are gen­er­ally diag­nosed when they’re in trouble, and then only with a spinal tap.”

The drugs that treat stage I are effec­tive and not extremely inva­sive. But the existing ther­a­pies for stage II are lengthy, toxic and some­times even fatal themselves.

The cen­tral ner­vous system,” Pol­lastri says, “has evolved nicely to pro­tect the brain.” As such, devel­oping drugs that can get through the so-​​called “blood-​​brain bar­rier” into the cen­tral ner­vous system can be extremely dif­fi­cult. But this is exactly what’s required to treat stage II sleeping sick­ness patients.

Pollastri’s col­lab­o­ra­tion, which crosses national and insti­tu­tional bound­aries alike, was approved for one year of funding from the Tres Cantos Open Lab Foun­da­tion (TCOLF). TCOLF pro­vides funds so that external researchers can come to GSK´s R&D center in Tres Cantos (Spain) to pursue their projects as part of a drug dis­covery team and to tap into GSK´s resources and facilities.

The com­pounds in a drug company’s files are pre­dom­i­nantly drug-​​like,” Pol­lastri says. “The struc­tures are such that you can modify them pretty quickly, and as a result are an attrac­tive starting point.”

The high-​​throughput screen, which com­menced in Spain ear­lier this month, will iden­tify com­pounds of var­ious poten­cies. Those that show promise will be pushed through a val­i­da­tion and opti­miza­tion process. New, slightly tweaked ver­sions of the GSK com­pounds will be fun­neled back through the screen. Ulti­mately, Pol­lastri hopes, this process will lead to drugs that can treat sleeping sick­ness with very few side effects.

Pol­lastri, who is heading up the new Neglected Dis­eases Ini­tia­tive in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, is also spear­heading other “target repur­posing” studies, both in his lab here at North­eastern, as well as in col­lab­o­ra­tion with sev­eral other uni­ver­si­ties and insti­tu­tions throughout the country.

View selected pub­li­ca­tions of Michael Pol­lastri in IRis, Northeastern’s dig­ital archive.