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BOSTON — The chemical arrived in September from a company in Ukraine, by way of a middleman in Portland, Maine. It was a whitish powder, and 10 grams — a bit more than two teaspoons’ worth — cost around $1,000.

That wasn’t bad for this business, and anyway, it was worth it. In 2015, this molecule had been shown to work against the single-cell parasite that causes visceral leishmaniasis, one form of a neglected tropical disease that kills an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people a year. The chemical wasn’t perfect, though. It was unstable — so delicate that a hamster’s body broke it down before it could actually do its job.


Now, these two heaping teaspoons of powder had been shipped over 4,000 miles to Northeastern University, where it was portioned out to 10 undergraduates. Their task was to make that molecule better.

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