UK research could help combat sleeping sickness

PTI| Updated: Dec 17, 2013, 19:17 PM IST
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London: New findings on how parasites that cause sleeping sickness are able to communicate with one another could help limit the spread of the disease, British scientists said today.

The findings suggest that new drugs could be designed to disrupt the flow of messages between the infectious microorganisms, the Edinburgh University said in a release.

Sleeping sickness, so named because it disrupts sleep patterns, is transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly. More than 69 million people in Africa are at risk of infection.

Untreated, it can damage the nervous system, leading to coma, organ failure and death.

During infection, the parasites - known as African trypanosomes - multiply in the bloodstream and communicate with each other by releasing a small molecule.

When levels of this molecule become sufficiently high, this acts as a signal for the parasites to stop replicating and to change into a form that can be picked up by biting flies and spread.

A team led by researchers at the University of Edinburgh was able to uncover key components of the parasites' messaging system.

They used a technique known as gene silencing to identify genes used to respond to communication signals and the mechanisms involved.

Keith Matthews, who led the research at the University's School of Biological Sciences, said: "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."

The research, carried out in collaboration with the University of Dundee, was published in the journal Nature and funded by the Wellcome Trust.