New study finds insights into sleeping sickness

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh and University of Dundee recently discovered insights into the parasite responsible for sleeping sickness, which may change the way effective vaccines against the disease are developed.

The research team studied how African trypanosomes, the parasites responsible for sleeping sickness, communicate with one another. If communication between parasites can be disrupted with a novel drug, it may hinder the spread of disease.

"Parasites are adept at communicating with one another to promote their survival in our bodies and ensure their spread - but by manipulating their messages, new ways to combat these infections are likely to emerge," Professor Keith Matthews of the University of Edinburgh's School of Biological Sciences and leader of the research team said.

The research team used a technique called gene silencing to observe how the microorganisms communicated to one another. The parasites multiply in the host's bloodstream and communicate by releasing small molecules. The small molecules serve as an indication of when to multiple, stop multiplying and change into a form that biting flies will carry and spread.

Sleeping sickness interrupts the sleeping pattern of its victim. It is transmitted and carried by the tsetse fly, putting 69 million people in Africa at risk of developing the disease. If left untreated, it can cause permanent damage to the nervous system, coma, organ failure and death.

The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust and its results were published in a recent issue of the Nature journal.