NIH awards UGA researchers $2.6 million to fight African sleeping sickness

man in lab with bottles

HAT teaser.jpgThe 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, commonly 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 department of cellular biology 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."

Congratulations to Dr. Mensa-Wilmot and his team for thir progress against this scourge. As he says, "HAT is a disease of poverty, so there is little incentive, understandably, for large pharmaceutical industries to be heavily invested." So it falls to researchers in academia to pick up with the possibilties and see them through to prevent suffering in some of the poorest parts of the globe. Great work, as well as a great committment to imporving human health.

Image: Kojo Mensa-Wilmot by Andrew Tucker