Solutions for Neglected Diseases


By Kate Rauch

UCSF tropical parasite expert Conor Caffrey, PhD, has the dream to make the testing for the debilitating schistosomiasis infection, epidemic in many poor nations, as easy as an over-the-counter stick pregnancy test – a little urine, and in minutes, a result. 

Caffrey, associate researcher at the UCSF Department of Pathology and scientist at the Sandler Center for Drug Discovery, is an expert in the chronic infection caused by a parasite found in irrigation channels and ponds. "We're dealing with a disease of the very poor and marginalized," Caffrey said. "Diagnosis isn’t as simple as picking up a kit from your local drugstore."

In fact, the current practice of microscopically screening stool or urine samples for parasite eggs is laborious, requires expertise and is limited by the unpredictable reproductive cycle of the worms. A person can be infected, even without a clear presence of eggs. It can take days to  get results from this method, which is not convenient in the remote villages of Africa or Southeast Asia where the infection is widespread, affecting the lives of 500-700 million people.

A unique award from UCSF’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) is helping Caffrey move a little closer to a real-world solution. The T1 Translational Catalyst Award, first offered in 2010 and modeled after a successful Gladstone award, is designed to help drive promising, early translational research through the lengthy and complex process connecting academia to medicines, tools or procedures that benefit patients. In the translational science spectrum, "T1" represents early translational research that has not yet been tested on humans. Learn more

Caffrey, whose collaborators include Michael Hsieh, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor at the Department of Urology, Stanford University and Gigi Knudsen, PhD, Assistant Research Scientist at the UCSF Department of Pharma­ceutical Chemistry and scientist at  the Sandler Center for Drug Discovery, received the top level of the tiered award, which included one-to-one consultation with an industry expert and $100,000 of funding.Caffrey's T1 Catalyst award is helping him and his collaborators to bioengineer a dipstick-type urine or blood test that changes color when it detects a protein unique to schistosomiasis. Awardees receive customized support from legal, financial, and regulatory experts in medical and health product development.

Conor Caffrey, PhD
Conor Caffrey, PhD
The award is giving Caffrey nuts and bolts knowledge in financing and marketing, primarily from his main consultant, Russell Bromley, a businessman with expertise in innovative medical technologies. He is connecting Caffrey and colleagues with experts whose wisdom includes the formidable challenges of developing products for consumers who cannot pay for them.

"Bromley’s advice was incredibly helpful in terms of taking academics into a different direction," Caffrey said. The funding is helping to keep the project momentum moving in a time of strained budgets, he added. "Part of the $100 K we used to get intellectual property control, which was very important."

For Bromely, the founder of TRAC Consulting and an expert in the translational development of medical science, assisting Caffrey and team is deeply satisfying. "It's been gratifying to work with young investigators early in their careers who are so focused and passionate about making a very concrete contribution in a challenging area of global health," he said.

CTSI at UCSF is a member of the national, NIH-funded CTSA network focusing on accelerating research to improve health. The T1 Translational Catalyst Award is among a wide range of CTSI resources and services that support research at every stage.