Scots scientists make sleeping sickness breakthrough


By Cara Sulieman

SCOTS scientists have made a breakthrough into the treatment of sleeping sickness.

Boffins at the University of Edinburgh discovered how the sleeping sickness parasite lives inside the tsetse fly.

And they hope that this means they will be able to develop more effective treatments for the disease.

Up to 70,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa – which includes countries such as Ghana and Malawi – suffer from the disease which is transferred by the tsetse fly.

And more than 40,000 Africans are killed by the parasite a year.

With effective treatment, the disease – which causes fever and headaches before attacking the nervous system – can be kept at bay.

Now the team at University of Edinburgh, led by Professor Keith Matthews, have worked out how the parasite survives inside the gut of the feeding flies.

In a study published in the journal Genes and Development, the team explain that they’ve found that when the tsetse fly swallows the parasite it triggers a reaction inside the parasite’s cells.

This changes the activity of the enzymes inside certain cells of the parasite which, in turn, changes the body of the parasite allowing it to survive inside the gut.

It then goes on to be transferred on to the next person bitten by the fly.

And the scientists think that they can use this research to study human genetic disorders as well.

The part of the parasite cell that allows it to change is similar to a part in human cells.

This means researchers can use their findings to better understand how cell defects in humans cause genetic disorders such as Zellweger syndrome –  a fatal disease that has no cure.

Professor Keith Matthews from the School of Biological Studies said: “Our results also give valuable insight into how our own cells evolved and how they function, which is helpful for understanding some inherited diseases.

“These findings also provide hope for a target to stop the spread of these deadly parasites.”

Although the disease can also be contracted between a pregnant mother and her child and through blood tranfusions, the most common way is through the tsetse fly.

It can be treated but patients can relapse and have to be checked up every six months for two years after the disease has gone.

The study by the University of Edinburgh was supported by the Wellcome Trust and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.