Deadly African Sleeping Sickness
Sleeping sickness, or African trypanosomiasis, is actually a potentially fatal parasitic infection that has ravaged populations in sub-Saharan Africa for decades, and it continues to infect thousands of people every year.
Since 1940 some of the drugs have been developed to treat sleeping sickness but these are highly toxic and sometimes cause painful side effects and even death.
Researchers at the University of Georgia have made a discovery that may soon lead to new therapies for this critically neglected disease that cause neither the risks nor the pain associated with traditional treatments.
The scientists at UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases discovered a specific receptor tucked away in an organelle inside the disease-causing trypanosome parasite that regulates the release of calcium, which is responsible for numerous critical cell functions required for parasite growth and replication.
“The mechanisms we have identified are critical for the survival of the parasite, so if we can manipulate them, we can stop the infection,” said researchers.
The calcium receptor identified by the researchers serves as a kind of messenger within the parasite, telling it when to secrete specific chemicals, when to divide and when to spread.
Researchers hypothesized that disrupting this system would leave the parasites incapable of growing and replicating within their human and animal hosts.
This hypothesis was tested by watching genetically modified versions of the parasitic cell both in laboratory cultures and in mice. In both cases, the genetically altered parasites with dysfunctional calcium receptors were unable to replicate, and mice in the experimental group remained disease free. These organelles were rich in acidic calcium, but they released the calcium to control cell functions.
The parasite is transmitted through the bite of the tsetse fly, a large flying insect found throughout the midcontinent of Africa that survives by drinking blood from human and animal hosts. Many previous global efforts to prevent transmission of sleeping sickness have focused on controlling or eradicating the tsetse fly, which has proven difficult. Even when humans are successful in avoiding the bite of the tsetse fly, domesticated animals like cattle and pigs may fall victim to nagana, the animal version of sleeping sickness, which, when translated from Zulu, means “depressed in spirit.”
Researchers observed that as the name implies, infected animals lose strength, do not produce milk and eventually die. Potential therapies will be equally applicable to animals, and that it will have a positive impact on the area’s economic outlook. Researchers are also confident that their discovery will have applications beyond the treatment of sleeping sickness.
Although the cells within humans and animals are more complex than trypanosomes, they do carry organelles that function in similar ways to the ones they hope to block in the parasite.
Researchers found that the human version of these organelles plays an important role in blood clotting, which may lead to new therapies for uncontrollable bleeding and trauma.
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