New insights into drug targets for sleeping sickness

19 May 2014

An enzyme which allows trypanosome parasites to evade human defences is a promising new drug target, according to a study funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council.

Seventy million people in sub-Saharan Africa are at risk of contracting sleeping sickness - a potentially fatal disease which attacks the central nervous system, causing changes in personality, seizures, and difficulties in walking and talking.

The disease is caused by Trypanosoma brucei parasites, transmitted by tsetse flies. However, different subspecies infect different hosts - Trypanosoma brucei brucei (T. b. brucei) infects cattle but is non-infectious to humans, whereas T. b. gambiense and T. b. rhodesiense display specific adaptations that allow them to infect humans and cause disease.

By searching for genes that make T. b. brucei sensitive to the defences of the human immune system, a team from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine have now identified an enzyme and a previously unknown gene which interact with human defences.

The team screened all 7,500 genes of the T. b. brucei parasite by systematically inactivating each gene and looking for parasites which could survive exposure to human blood serum. In their search, they identified four genes that make T. b. brucei sensitive to human defences, discovered a previously unknown gene, and they were also able to reveal more detail on the mechanism behind the role of another gene, ICP.

When ICP was inactivated, an enzyme called CATL became fully active and counteracted the components of human serum responsible for killing trypanosomes. As this appears to be an important defence mechanism for the parasite, the authors suggest this makes CATL a particularly attractive drug target.

Dr Sam Alsford of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said: "New drugs for sleeping sickness are urgently needed because the existing ones have serious side-effects. These new results are helping us to reveal more about what makes some trypanosomes resistant to human defences, while others are sensitive. CATL is an important drug target, and our work suggests that inhibiting this enzyme could help support the human defence system in fighting off the disease."

The researchers plan to carry out further work on the new gene they discovered, which is likely to be involved in the parasite's uptake of human defence factors from the blood, and could play an important role in its interaction with human defences.

The paper, Cathepsin-L Can Resist Lysis by Human Serum in Trypanosoma brucei brucei, is published in PLOS Pathogens.

  • Trypanosome parasites cause sleeping sickness, a potentially fatal disease which attacks the central nervous system.
  • Now, researchers have discovered an enzyme which allows the parasites to evade human defences and which is a promising target for drugs to fight the disease.
  • New drugs are urgently needed because 70 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are at risk from the disease and existing drugs have serious side effects.