Life cycle of sleeping sickness causing parasite

A new diagnostic test developed from research at the Universities of Cambridge and Dundee has been launched with the aim of helping eliminate the disease known as African sleeping sickness.

The World Health Organisation’s goal is to eliminate Human African Trypanosomiasis, and rapid and accurate diagnosis is essential to achieving this objective

Mark Carrington

Sleeping sickness, or Human African Trypanosomiasis, is caused by parasites transmitted by tsetse flies in sub-Saharan Africa and has a devastating impact, causing thousands of deaths each year. After sustained control efforts to reduce the number of new cases, the number of reported cases dropped below 10,000 for the first time in 50 years in 2009, and in 2015 there were 2,804 cases recorded, though the estimated number of actual cases is thought to be closer to 20,000.

The international not-for-profit organisation FIND and the diagnostics company Alere have today launched their second-generation rapid diagnostic test for sleeping sickness. This second-generation test is easier and safer to produce, using recombinant protein technology to produce the two diagnostic antigens, one of which is completely new.

The new test, SD BIOLINE HAT 2.0, costs US $0.50 each and requires no specialist equipment to diagnose sleeping sickness from a pin-prick of blood, providing the same level of accuracy but in a more robust production format.

The test has been developed from research performed in the laboratories of Professor Mark Carrington at Cambridge and Professor Mike Ferguson at Dundee, who collaborated to identify, produce and initially validate the trypanosome proteins that form the basis of the tests. Device prototyping done at BBI Solutions in the Dundee Technology Park.

“This is a terrible disease that causes character disintegration, psychological deterioration followed by coma and death, and current treatments are far from ideal,” said Professor Carrington from the Department of Biochemistry.

“The World Health Organisation’s goal is to eliminate Human African Trypanosomiasis, and rapid and accurate diagnosis is essential to achieving this objective. It is extremely encouraging for us as researchers to see our work now being deployed in the field where it can make a real difference to people.”

The work at Cambridge and Dundee was supported through separate funding streams from the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Both the Dundee and Cambridge labs were supported by the Wellcome Trust at the time the research was done, and much of the work was performed by Dr Mandy Crow, an MRC PhD student at Cambridge between 2000 and 2004, and Dr Lauren Sullivan, and MRC PhD student and then MRC Centenary fellow at Dundee between 2008 and 2013.

Professor Ferguson said: “Sometimes impactful work comes from side-projects where one synthesises funding streams, in this case from the MRC and the Wellcome Trust, and works across institutions and with industrial partners to do something more speculative or applied. The science underpinning this new diagnostic device is a good case in point.”

Adapted from a press release from the University of Dundee

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