Prof Andrew Thompson

Prof. Andrew Thompson

Professor Andrew Thompson’s work on parasitic diseases has led to the development of drugs against neglected diseases. These include those endemic in people in Africa and South America, such as sleeping sickness and Chagas disease.

His research has also pioneered molecular, or DNA based, tools to understand the transmission of parasites from animal to human, human to human, and animal to animal. The tools allow non-invasive research into diseases in species as diverse as endangered primates in Africa, to local bandicoots.

Interview with Professor Andrew Thompson

“A major focus of our research on parasites here at Murdoch University is on researching treatments for neglected diseases. We work on diseases like sleeping sickness, which is rampant in Africa, Chagas disease which is rampant in South America, and Leishmaniasis.”

“At the moment there’s very few drugs available for these diseases and ones that are available are highly toxic and very expensive. By researching the parasites associated with those diseases, we can test drugs and chemical structures to treat the diseases.”

Discovering drug treatments for neglected diseases

“Murdoch University is researching treatments for Chagas disease, which is transmitted by bugs in South America. Australia has thousands of migrants from South America from the endemic areas. Chagas is a chronic disease – It may not show itself for 10 or 20 years and the symptoms can be fairly vague. It’s a silent disease that is increasing in Australia.”

“We look at the lifecycles of these diseases, the biology and work with chemists to synthesise drugs. We then look at their efficacy against the parasites. We then work with the chemists to review the results, look at the chemical structure and how it can be adapted to be more effective.”

“Through this research we are developing a drug treatment for Chagas. We hope in time we might be able to help prevent the disease. We hope, if a mother in South America finds her child wakes in the morning with a blister around the eye, she will know her child has been bitten by one of these bugs. She will take the child to the doctor; and the child will get the drug, just in case that bug had injected one of the nasty parasites.”

Developing drug treatments through local and global partnerships

“By researching the parasites associated with those diseases, we can test drugs and chemical structures to treat the diseases. We then work with partners to develop drugs to go to clinical trials. There is fantastic collaborative research going on here at Murdoch. We work with Epichem, a WA based biotech, and their chemists, as well as global partners to treat diseases which are rampant across the globe.”

“Many of the major drug companies are not interested in developing drug treatments for these diseases but they are happy to let us look at their chemical libraries. They have thousands of drugs they’ve developed, for example for HIV/AIDS, measles, you name it, and they’re sitting there in their libraries. They may not have been very good for those particular targets so those compounds are freely available to Murdoch to research whether they could be effective against parasites. Epichem gets the libraries of drugs from different companies; the drug companies allow Epichem to tweak them, optimise them, or change their chemical structure and Murdoch Uni tests them.”

Drug companies may also help in designing or developing the clinical trials. Clinical trials can occur very quickly, usually within a year. By working with The Centre for Drug Candidate Optimisation (CDCO) within Monash University's Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, they look to see how the drugs behave in the body, toxicology, and whether they’re mutagenic or not. So we’ve already got a lot of data on these drugs well before the human and animal studies have been done.”

A treatment for one of the most common illnesses in children and travellers

“Smith Kline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline) funded Murdoch University to develop a drug to treat Giardia, a parasite ubiquitous in Australia. It’s a common cause of travellers diarrhoea, Bali-belly, Pharaoh’s revenge, call it what you will.”

“Murdoch found a Smith Kline Beecham drug, one they normally marketed for treating worms, was very effective against Giardia. We did a clinical trial in Australia and in Aboriginal communities in north of WA. The drug proved to be extremely effective.”

“Their drug was just coming off patent for the indication for worms and we gave that drug a completely new indication. Now you can buy it off the shelf anywhere in South-East Asia for treating Giardia in kids.”

Our research partnerships

“We’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with some outstanding global organisations and companies over many years. These collaborations have been fantastically rewarding.”

“Murdoch University has received substantial funding from the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) for the past seven or eight years. DNDi is an independent, not-for-profit research and development organisation that develops safe, effective and affordable medicines for neglected diseases that afflict millions of the world’s poorest people. They are based in Geneva and their funding comes from organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust UK and governments from across the globe.”

“DNDi disperse the money by looking for where the research is needed and then managing projects. Through these projects Murdoch works with the Centre for Drug Candidate Optimisation within Monash University's Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, as well as labs in Korea and in the United States.”

“We work with a local biotech company called Epichem, located right here on the Murdoch University campus.”

“Murdoch also works with the University of Saskatchewan and University of Calgary in Canada, the University of Zurich, as well as a number of Australian universities. I’m a visiting professor at the Mahidol University in Bangkok where Murdoch has shared students over the years.”

“We were a collaborating centre with the World Health Organisation for 28 years.”

“In many ways, the very generous funding from Smith Kline Beecham, now GlaxoSmithKline, kick-started our research into drugs and parasites. We presented a poster on the activity of one of their drugs at a conference in Amsterdam some 15 or 16 years ago. A medical director from Sydney, who happened to be at the conference, asked us whether we’d like to take the research a little further. That was very fortuitous.”

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