Disease detection: Smith College prof. showcases new way to test for river blindness, which affects 20 million

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 06-26-2023 3:27 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In a lecture room at Smith College’s Ford Hall, Steven Williams speaks to a group of 16 scientists from eight different African countries about a new method for testing whether an area is contagious for river blindness, one of the most widespread infectious diseases in sub-Saharan Africa.

Moukaram Tertubiano, a researcher with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also is present in the room, helping translate Williams’ lecture into French for some of the scientists.

Williams, a professor of biological sciences at Smith, has with a team of researchers at the school developed a new diagnostic test to screen blackflies, the insect that can carry onchocerca volvulus, the parasitic worm that causes river blindness, and spread it to humans. Through nesting its larvae within the human body, the parasite causes loss of vision and severe itching of the skin, and is believed to have infected around 20 million people worldwide, mostly in Africa.

The diagnostic test soon drew the interest of the World Health Organization, which asked if the school could help train local scientists from Africa on the method.

“This came together really quickly,” said Williams. “The idea was to go to individual labs all over Africa and train people. But then I had this crazy idea about six weeks ago, why don’t we bring them all here?”

In a lab in Ford Hall, the scientists screen blackfly samples using a device known as a TissueLyser. By screening large samples of blackflies from a particular area, the scientists can determine how many are carrying the parasite that causes river blindness — and by extension, whether the disease is prevalent in people living in the region.

Although drug treatments for river blindness exist, Williams said there are challenges in determining who is infected, and how long someone needs to be treated until the disease goes away.

“If they stop too early, and it’s not really gone, what happens is it comes back and then you have to start all over,” he said. “So this diagnostic screening test is to show if it’s gone or not. If it’s not in the flies, then it’s gone, if it’s in the flies, it’s still there.”

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African countries represented at the training for the tests were Benin, Cameroon, Tanzania, Mali, South Sudan, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Malawi.

Yaya Coulibaly, who runs a research lab in Mali in West Africa to fight infectious diseases, says he hopes he can use the training he receives at Smith to improve conditions in his home country.

“We used to do an older technique back home, but this is more powerful, with better output,” he said. “We can process several thousands of samples a day, and we have a system of control that allows us to be very sure that the action worked or not.”

Philip Kutjok, a scientist from South Sudan who helped to oversee the training program, said that in working to eradicate these kinds of tropical diseases, it not only improved the physical health, but also the economic health of these developing countries.

“The beauty of this is when we see the effect on the population,” he said. “This also reflects on the production of the country. The healthier the community, the more production there is.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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