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Parasite study offers human insight

Fresh discoveries about the parasite that causes sleeping sickness could lead to improved treatments for the disease.

Scientists studying the parasite, which is spread by the tsetse fly and infects the blood of people and animals, have shed light on how it is able to survive when taken up by a feeding fly.

Sleeping sickness is a potentially fatal condition which affects up to 70,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa, and millions more are at risk from the disease.

Infection adapts

Researchers from the University found that when a fly swallows the parasite, a reaction is triggered in a particular part of the parasite’s cell.

This causes a change in the activity of enzymes stored there, allowing the parasite to rapidly adapt so that it can survive in the fly’s gut.

Human connection

The part of the parasite’s cell associated with this response has a corresponding part in human cells.

Because of this, researchers say their study could also point towards greater understanding of human genetic disorders linked to cell defects.

These include Zellweger syndrome, a rare neurological condition that causes infant death.

The study, published in the journal Genes and Development, was supported by the Wellcome Trust and the BBSRC.

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.

Professor Keith MatthewsSchool of Biological Sciences