Pharmacy Research Scientist Receives Grant to Discover Treatment for Fatal Disease

Dr. Christopher Rice, an Assistant Research Scientist at UGA’s College of Pharmacy, has received a foundation grant to continue his research on Naegleria fowleri, a single-celled living organism that causes the brain-eating disease Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM).

Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis targets the central nervous system and is almost always fatal. Out of the 148 people in the United States who have been diagnosed with this disease since 1920, only four have survived. On average, people die within five days of becoming infected. 

“All cases of PAM were lethal this past year even with the best available treatments, indicating that more potent, faster, and brain permeable compounds need to be discovered and developed against this emerging pathogen,” said Dr. Rice.  

Typically, Naegleria fowleri is contracted while swimming in warm, stagnant freshwater. People become infected with this amoeba when water is forced up the nose and migrates to the brain along the olfactory nerve. Signs of an infection include a high fever, severe headaches, neck stiffness, confusion, nausea/vomiting, and seizures, among other similar symptoms.

In 2014, Jordan Cole Smelski contracted Naegleria fowleri while swimming in hot springs in Costa Rica. Jordan began experiencing headaches and nausea two days later. Three days after his symptoms started, he was admitted to the hospital, where he was originally diagnosed with viral meningitis. The next day, he began experiencing hallucinations and seizures. He was transferred to the ICU, where doctors then discovered the amoeba in the brain. Seven days and 12 hours after first contracting the amoeba, Jordan Cole Smelski died from Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis.

Following his death, Jordan’s parents, Steve and Shelly Smelski, created a foundation to honor their son. The Jordan Smelski Foundation was established with the goals of spreading awareness, providing education, advocating for research, and giving back to the community. Since 2014, the foundation has raised more than $107,000 to fund research on Naegleria fowleri.

As a young pharmaceutical scientist, Dr. Rice joined the College in January 2020 and received the grant less than 17 months later.  The grant will provide the resources to research new drugs and drug repurposing that could treat Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis. Dr. Rice has experience in researching Naegleria fowleri. As a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of South Florida, he led Dr. Dennis E. Kyle’s amoeba drug discovery project, in which he developed screening methods for the disease. In 2017, he transitioned to UGA with Dr. Kyle. Since then, Dr. Rice has been a pioneer of research on the disease. 

“A prompt diagnosis as well as a specific amoeba treatment regimen needs to be administered as early as possible as this disease kills within a few days to weeks after the patient starts displaying symptoms,” said Rice. “We believe you can only contract N. fowleri from swimming in fresh-water lakes or ponds with water going in your nose, but several cases also have been linked to the use of tap water for homemade slip and slides and for ritual nasal rinsing and ablution using Neti-pots with untreated/unfiltered water.”

He added, “This exemplifies the need to develop more effective and faster acting therapeutics against this neglected disease. This award by the Jordan Smelski Foundation funds a high risk, high reward project. I would like to extend thanks to Steve and Shelly Smelski, the presidents and founders of the foundation, and the remainder of the Jordan Smelski Foundation for their generous curiosity in funding this project. My appreciation also extends to the donors, who have supported the foundation to fund events and innovative projects.”

Click here to donate to the Jordan Smelski Foundation.