River blindness in humans will be eliminated within the next decade with the help of a drug initially developed to de-worm cattle, said Kevin Schultz, head of worldwide research and development at Merial Ltd., a Duluth-based veterinary pharmaceuticals firm.
Dr. Schultz’s remarks were part of a presentation made to members of the Georgia Biomedical Partnership at a breakfast meeting held Aug.15 at Anthony’s Restaurant in Buckhead.
Almost 18 million people in Africa and parts of Latin America are infected with river blindness, formally known as onchocerciasis; 750,000 of them are eventually visually impaired or blinded by the disease.
Spread by a small, black fly that breeds in rapidly flowing rivers and streams, the worms released into the body by the fly’s bite cause incessant itching and potentially blindness when they enter the eyes.
Working in conjunction with the Carter Center and the World Health Organization, London-based Merck & Co., Merial’s parent company, now distributes the drug, marketed for humans as Mectizan, to millions of people in 35 affected countries, free of charge.
This is an example of Merial’s and Merck’s, continued commitment to “effective transitions” in bringing successful molecules from animal health to human health research and vice versa, Dr. Shultz, a veterinarian, said.
Dr. Schultz, who followed Merial when it relocated its North American sales and part of its R&D operations from New Jersey to Duluth last May, encouraged Georgia’s university system to establish a medical school, in addition to the veterinary and pharmaceutical schools at the University of Georgia, as a means of attracting additional biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms to the state.
He also urged Georgia government to work to change negative perceptions of the state’s educational system, and to build up the city’s public transit to alleviate pressure on Atlanta’s roadways, in order to better market the state to biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms interested in relocating or setting up new operations.
To date, Merial has recruited 200-250 additional employees to staff its growing operations in Georgia, and is still hiring, said Dr. Schultz. The company employs approximately 6,500 people worldwide and generates sales in excess of $1.6 billion.