SOURCE: EARTH University Foundation

January 29, 2008 13:50 ET

Atlanta's EARTH University Foundation Gets Anonymous Donation to Fight Chagas Disease

Supportive Donor Gives $300,000 to Project Aimed at Finding a Cure for Chagas Disease

ATLANTA, GA--(Marketwire - January 29, 2008) - Ewire -- Atlanta-based EARTH University Foundation announced today that it has received $300,000 from a very supportive donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, to fund research over the next two years to find a cure for Chagas disease.

Chagas disease is the most prominent parasitic disease in Latin America. It affects an estimated eight to 11 million people in rural areas in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America and South America and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is estimated to cause approximately 50,000 deaths worldwide each year. Researchers say the U.S. could be housing more than 100,000 people with Chagas disease who were infected while living in Latin America.

Thanks to the donation, enhanced research toward finding a cure will be carried out by professors at EARTH University in Costa Rica and by scientists at two additional institutions in a consortium called ChagaSpace Project. ChagaSpace (www.chagaspace.org) is a joint project between NASA, and several universities and institutions, with EARTH University serving as the research coordinating entity. Established in 1995, ChagaSpace researchers are working together to find a cure for Chagas disease by utilizing the biological diversity of the humid tropics and by conducting crystallization processes in space.

ChagaSpace researcher and former astronaut Dr. Franklin Chang-Díaz explains space's role in the research, saying, "The absence of gravity makes it easier to conduct crystallization processes. In fact, zero gravity is the ideal environment for the crystallization of proteins [and using this method] it's easier to study the molecular structure of the substances that inhibit the parasite's activities."

After 13 years of work and a concentrated effort to decode the disease in space, the results are promising: the team has crystallized three enzymes with the potential to neutralize the parasite that causes Chagas disease; they have identified various natural blocking agents; and they are studying the possibility of cleaning contaminated blood with a plant extract.

The next round of research, courtesy of the donor's $300,000 gift, will focus on the preservation of biodiversity in the tropics. Extracts from the biota of the tropics will be used to find the molecular "locks" on the enzymes in T. cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease. The project combines space protein crystallography techniques with the search and potential use of natural extracts from tropical forests to develop blocking agents and to help conserve rainforest biodiversity by stressing non-destructive use of it. EARTH University's partner institutions for this unique track of research include the Institute for Biodiversity in Costa Rica and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"This phase of the endeavor, made possible in part by the donor's gift, is an exciting venture, as it marks further progress in the first collaborative medical space project undertaken at the level of the whole American continent," said Dr. Bert Kohlmann, professor and Director of Research at EARTH University. "All of the team members at ChagaSpace are grateful for this valuable opportunity to sharpen our techniques and continue our efforts in finding a cure for this deadly disease."

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