Category Archives: African Sleeping Sickness

Northeastern University Launches Integrated Global Health Initiative to Tackle NTDs

By Angela Herring

Drug discovery is by definition slow and costly. The multiphase process, which begins with basic science research and ends with clinical trials, can consume up to two decades and more than a billion dollars.

Credit: Mary Knox Merrill, Northeastern University

For NTDs such as African sleeping sickness and Chagas disease, the outlook is even grimmer: anti-infective drugs tend to have higher fail rates than other drugs, as parasites quickly develop resistance. And since NTDs predominantly affect low-income populations, the incentive for big pharmaceutical companies to improve on current treatments is low.

But current treatments are ghastly. In some cases, the drugs themselves can be poisonous and have high mortality rates. With one-third of the planet’s population at risk for NTDs, a new paradigm is required.

Northeastern University open-source science model will hasten the drug discovery process. Despite great advances in NTD research over the last decade, the global research effort is largely uncoordinated. Continue reading

Trypanosomes, climate change and evolution; past and present

By: Charles Ebikeme

“Trypanosomiasis has kept Africa green”

The quote above comes from a book I can’t remember by an author whose name escapes me. In essence, it alludes to the inextricable relationship and balance that exists between all things on our planet, particularly the relationship between man and his environment. For a long time, we have known about the influence diseases can have on us, but we are only now beginning to realise its full extent.

The delicate relationship and inter-connected influence between human populations, climate, and the ecology of disease (vector-borne or otherwise) has unfolded over evolutionary time.

Photo credit: Britannica Encyclopedia

Genetically, some populations are predisposed to particular diseases. A Science last year, showed  African-Americans have higher rates of kidney disease than European-Americans. The reason, as postulated by the researchers, was due to variants of a gene (APOL1), common in African chromosomes but absent from European chromosomes. The gene codes for a serum factor that lyses (or harms) trypanosomes. It seems the evolution of a critical survival factor in Africa now contributes to the high rates of kidney disease in African-Americans.

Changes in African climate in the last 5-6 million years are thought to have mediated important modifications in the African environment and in the animals that live there. As the rivers changed, and as plant and animal species adapted to a changing climate, disease was brought to areas where it wasnt before. These phenomena have marked important milestones in the evolution of humans and their predecessors. Continue reading

More good news New test may improve diagnosis of African sleeping sickness

By: Alanna Shaikh

When I was a kid, I thought sleeping sickness sounded like a nice thing to get. Compared to chicken pox or Coxsackie virus, a disease that just made me nod off sounded pleasant. Kind of cozy in a way. Every time I got bored I could just take a little nap, and all the grown-ups would say “Don’t mind her, she has the sleeping sickness.” It would be like being a kitten or a puppy.

Long-time readers of this blog know just how wrong I was. Sleeping sickness is awful. It does not involve a lot of comfy naps. Sleeping sickness – trypanosomiasis – is a deadly parasitic disease transmitted by the tsetse fly.[i] It’s called the world’s deadliest disease.

One especially tricky thing about trypanosomiasis is that it’s very hard to diagnose. The symptoms are varied, and look a lot like the symptoms of everything else. Red sore from the fly bite, fever, headache, irritability. It sounds a lot like ordinary life until it worsens into an infection of the central nervous symptom and then kills you.

The disease actually has no specific clinical symptoms; you have to have a diagnostic test or you’re just guessing. Right now, health workers identify suspected cases of sleeping sickness by looking at symptoms; then they do a spine puncture to draw out fluid and look at it under a microscope to see if the trypanosomiasis parasite is present. It’s a lengthy process that depends on good clinical skills, functional microscopes, and staff with the ability to use them.

Prompt and accurate diagnosis is important to treating trypanosomiasis. The treatment is toxic, for one thing, so you need to be sure it really is sleeping sickness before you treat someone. You can’t treat on a guess. The treatment is also not very effective, so your likelihood of a cure really improves if you fight the infection early. Continue reading