Scientists Scour the Globe for a Drug to Kill Deadly Brain-Eating Amoeba

Lindzi Wessel | Stat News | July 22, 2016

The deaths hit the headlines every summer, sometimes five or six of them across the country. They’re newsworthy for their rarity and for how innocuous the events leading up to them are — it’s usually a young person who was swimming in a lake, got some water up their nose, and within days, was dead. The cause is an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri, which when it infects the brain, causes massive swelling that is almost always fatal. Over the past half-decade, 137 people in the US have died of the infection.

That rarity means that hardly any research money exists to find treatments. The best line of attack at present is a combination of drugs designed for other conditions. “Even with the best drug combinations, the fatality rate is over 98 percent,” said Dennis Kyle, an infectious disease researcher at the University of South Florida. “People are dying from this disease all the time, and we really have nothing to treat it effectively.”

But Kyle and his team are working to change that reality. Borrowing from techniques used to develop drugs for diseases like malaria, they have created the first high-volume screening setup to hunt for compounds that kill N. fowleri. With the help of collaborators, Kyle has amassed a collection of over 30,000 natural compounds gathered from far-flung corners of the globe, including microbes fished out of mangrove swamps, salty Antarctic oceans, and off sea sponges in the Gulf of Mexico...