New drug targets sleeping sickness

Antwerp and Ghent scientists discover new drug for deadly disease.

Antwerp and Ghent scientists have discovered a new drug against African 'sleeping sickness'. "This disease seems to be on its way out, but it is still very useful to have a new drug to fall back on, because we can’t rule out another sudden upswing ", says Prof. Guy Caljon (UAntwerp).

African trypanosomiasis, also called 'sleeping sickness', is a deadly disease caused by the Trypanosoma brucei parasite, which lives in the tsetse fly. When an infected fly bites a person for its bloodmeal, the disease can start to develop. The West African variant of the disease often stays dormant for several years, while the East African variant is much more aggressive and can result in death within a matter of months.

"A number of therapies do exist", says Prof. Guy Caljon from the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Antwerp. "However, the drugs currently in use often cause serious side effects and cannot be administered orally, which is a major hurdle for patients in remote areas. They often live far away from a health centre, so they can’t just go and get treated."

In reserve

In recent years, there has been a steady decline in the number of cases, to around 1000 new patients per year. Caljon: "It seems that the disease can be eliminated. On a global scale, the problem is indeed relatively limited. Unfortunately, this also means that the development of new therapies for African sleeping sickness is not a priority for the pharmaceutical industry. However, it is still important to have an effective drug in reserve, as the disease could always reappear or develop resistance to current treatments."

Caljon and his UAntwerp colleague Prof. Louis Maes worked on a new treatment in collaboration with scientists from Ghent University and researchers from several universities in other countries. "We set out to find substances that could take out the parasite in a specific way," Maes explains. "It was essential to find an affordable, orally administered drug that could reach the brain."

Application in veterinary medicine

The new therapy with nucleoside analogues has proven very efficient in an extensive study with laboratory animals. The results of the research are described Communications. "As a matter of fact, this new drug can also be used in veterinary medicine," Caljon concludes. "After all, African trypanosomiasis also affects livestock farming, a sector of enormous socioeconomic importance."