An initiative is under way to develop new drugs for a devastating tropical disease that threatens almost 70 million people in Africa.
Scientists are beginning a £2.5 million project to design novel treatments for sleeping sickness, which is spread by the bite of the tsetse fly and is prevalent in west and central Africa. It can damage the nervous system and cause coma, organ failure and death.
Existing medicines for the disease can cause debilitating side-effects or can be fatal. Some drugs must be administered using a drip, which makes treatment time-consuming and expensive. Researchers hope to develop safe, effective medicines that can be given easily.
The quest for new treatments will build on previous studies about how the infection occurs. Scientists have shown that the parasite is able to survive in the bloodstream by using enzymes to convert blood sugars into the energy it needs to stay alive. They have identified potential drug compounds that can stop two of these enzymes from functioning, so killing the parasite.
Scientists from the University of Edinburgh, working with the international life sciences contract research organization Selcia, will design and develop drugs based on these drug compounds. Their aim is to design a drug that will be effective in small doses, and will work even on advanced infections. The 30-month project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, will seek to test the compounds in the lab and in mice, ahead of further studies that could involve human trials.
New treatments could be developed into veterinary medicines for infections caused by the same parasite in livestock, which cost farmers about US$2 billion a year.
Professor Malcolm Walkinshaw, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “Sleeping sickness is a widespread, neglected disease which, if left untreated, is invariably fatal and drugs are poorly effective. We hope to develop new forms of treatment that can be easily administered and will eventually help curb the disease’s impact.”
Dr Hans Fliri, Chairman and CEO of Selcia, said: “We are delighted to collaborate with the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences. Selcia has made no secret of its determination to develop strong links with academic research teams. We see these partnerships as a key strategic element of our growing integrated drug discovery offer.”