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August 28, 2017   Columns Articles | Research News | UGA to develop African sleeping sickness drugs

UGA to develop African sleeping sickness drugs

Alan Flurry

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By Alan Flurry | August 28, 2017
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The National Institutes of Health has awarded $2.6 million to University of Georgia researchers to develop new drugs to treat human African Trypanosomiasis, also known as African sleeping sickness.

African Trypanosomiasis, known as HAT, is caused by a single-celled parasite called Trypanosoma brucei, which is transmitted to humans through the bite of a blood-sucking insect called a tsetse fly.

Following a bite, the parasite multiplies in subcutaneous tissues and eventually crosses the blood-brain barrier to infect the central nervous system, causing changes in behavior, confusion, poor coordination and sleep disturbances. Without adequate treatment, the infection is almost invariably fatal.

Rural populations in sub-Saharan Africa that depend on agriculture, fishing, hunting and animal husbandry are most likely to be exposed to the tsetse fly bites, according to the World Health Organization, which has led sustained control efforts to reduce the number of new cases.

"There are immense challenges in understanding trypanosome biology because a significant number of their genes are not found in humans or yeasts, which are more intensely studied," said Kojo Mensa-Wilmot, professor in the cellular biology department in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences whose team was awarded the NIH grant. "Using chemical biology tools to identify disease-relevant genes in the parasite, we discovered a small-molecule that prevents duplication of the nucleus in a trypanosome and arrests proliferation of the parasite."

"Our goal is to translate this basic science finding into the design of drugs to treat HAT," he said. Using an animal model for the disease, the UGA-led team administered a drug that cured HAT in mice.

"HAT is a disease of poverty, so there is little incentive, understandably, for large pharmaceutical industries to be heavily invested. Two compounds are currently in clinical trial, but the pipeline for new anti-trypanosome drugs needs to be bolstered," said Mensa-Wilmot, who leads a UGA Chemical Biology Group and is a member of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.

Collaborators in the UGA-led consortium are Andrei Purmal of Cleveland BioLabs Inc. and Michael Pollastri, department of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University.

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