A Trojan horse to fight trypanosomes

By: Charles Ebikeme

From an ancient Latin poem comes a relatively simple concept — deliver the deadly blow within a Trojan horse. The Greeks used it to end the war against Troy after ten long years. In science it’s one of the new and unique ways researchers are coming up with to fight diseases in man. They’re using the new technique in the animals that transmit and spread disease to humans, such as flies and other insects. The goal is to eliminate the disease within the fly by using something common to the fly — the bacteria that lies within. It’s a common theme that is gaining popularity. In science we call it paratransgenesis– strategy that relies on weaponizing the simple bacteria that live inside the flies that transmit parasites.

The tsetse fly transmits trypanosomiasis, or African sleeping sickness. Photo credit: Steven Mihok

New open access research published in BioMedCentralsMicrobialCellFactories uses such a Trojan horse paratransgenesis technique. It represents a new way for researchers to fight African sleeping sickness.

The same way there are bacteria within our gut and digestive system — aiding our digestion, providing the nutrients that we are unable to synthesize ourselves, and generally contributing to our being — the tsetse fly also contains bacteria (bacterial endosymbiont). Sodalis glossinidius is one such bacteria.

The bacterial endosymbiont of the tsetse fly can be found in many places within the tsetse fly-in the fly gut, muscle, fat, milk glands and salivary glands. They can be found everywhere in the fly, but more importantly, everywhere that counts — everywhere the trypanosome, the parasite that causes sleeping sickness, invades. That seems to be the great advantage of using these bacteria like the famous Trojan horse.

Researchers working in Belgium have been able to turn the bacteria against the trypanosome. They modified the bacteria’s genome to secrete antibodies that bind to the surface of the parasite, killing it or blocking its development. In this case the antibodies are like deadly the soldiers hidden within the Trojan horse.

The technique proved tricky, and a delicate one to get right. The most important factor was that the growth of the mutated bacteria was unaltered; increasing their chances of survival within the fly, and meaning the trypanosome had less of a chance to overcome the attack.

Such a technique has already been done for other diseases of note — dengue, malaria, and Chagas disease. More and more, the foundation is being set for a new kind of disease prevention strategy.

Charles Ebikeme is a writer and scientist with a research background in tropical diseases. Possessing a MSc from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and a PhD in Parasitology from the University of Glasgow, Charles currently blogs and writes for the All Results Journals – a new publication system focusing on negative results – covering topics on the hidden side of the scientific publication process.

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