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.

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