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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 7, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 16
JHU Gets $10 Million to Lead Trachoma Research

Sheila West

Gates Foundation grant is one of largest ever to fight disease causing blindness

By Tim Parsons
School of Public Health

The Johns Hopkins University has received a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to lead a consortium that will study ways to improve the treatment of trachoma and to accelerate progress toward the goal of eliminating the disease. Trachoma is the leading infectious cause of blindness worldwide and affects hundreds of millions of people, primarily in poor and rural regions. The award is one of the largest single grants ever given to support trachoma research.

The Partnership for the Rapid Elimination of Trachoma, or PRET, will be led by Sheila West of the Dana Center for Preventive Ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins, in cooperation with the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health. The partners include research teams at the university's School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health; the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; the University of California, San Francisco; Pfizer; the World Health Organization; and the Trachoma Control Programs at the ministries of health in Tanzania, Ethiopia and the Gambia.

The WHO has established a goal of fully controlling trachoma worldwide by 2020. The research conducted by PRET will help determine which prevention strategies and treatment interventions will be the most effective.

"No other research partnership has the breadth and ability to undertake such a comprehensive and critical proposal for trachoma control," said West, who is also a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and holds a joint appointment at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The Gates Foundation grant will fund trials in two areas of trachoma control — surgery and antibiotics — in three countries hosting distinct infection scenarios: the Gambia, where the disease is on the verge of elimination; Tanzania, where treatment programs are in place, and the disease is on the decline; and Ethiopia, where treatment programs have not yet started.

The surgical phase of the study will examine the use of new devices to improve outcomes of surgery. Currently, mass treatment with an antibiotic is the WHO recommendation for trachoma- endemic communities. The antibiotic trials will address questions of how many persons in the community must be treated and how frequently treatment should occur to eliminate trachoma.

Pfizer, the private-sector partner in this consortium, has pledged sufficient antibiotics to country programs to control trachoma as part of the SAFE (surgery, antibiotics, facial cleanliness and environmental improvement) intervention. Antibiotics will also be provided for research needs.

"Trachoma disproportionately affects women and children in poor communities, and they often don't have a voice in priorities for health spending," West explained. "With this grant, we can target research to our trachoma control armamentarium and make better use of scarce resources and control strategies to alleviate blindness. None of us can do it on our own; we need to share the data among us to conquer the disease."

"The Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health is pleased to be able to facilitate and coordinate this extraordinary grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation," said Tom Quinn, the center's director. "This grant enables the center to help researchers and public health practitioners to control blinding trachoma, one of the great neglected tropical diseases affecting millions of people."

The Gates Foundation grant counts in the total of the Johns Hopkins Knowledge for the World campaign, which, as of Nov. 30, had raised more than $2.92 billion of its $3.2 billion goal. Priorities of the campaign, which benefits both The Johns Hopkins University and The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, include strengthening endowment for student aid and faculty support; advancing research, academic and clinical initiatives; and building and upgrading facilities on all campuses. The campaign began in July 2000 and is scheduled to close at the end of 2008.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health is a unique collaboration between three institutions — the schools of Public Health, Medicine and Nursing — that harnesses the expertise of its health and medical professionals to address a myriad of global health challenges: HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, malnutrition, hepatitis and other threats to health, especially in developing countries. For more information, go to


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