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Scientists Identify Potential New Method For Treating Sleeping Sickness

Scientists have identified a potential new approach to treat human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), commonly known as sleeping sickness, which afflicts “tens of thousands of people in sub-Saharan Africa” annually, IRIN reports. By targeting an enzyme the sleeping sickness parasite needs in order to survive, researchers say they can kill it without causing harm to the patient (4/1).

The team of researchers from the University of Dundee, University of York and the Structural Genomics Consortium in Toronto describe their findings in the journal Nature, according to the University of Dundee press release (3/31).

Sleeping sickness, which is “spread by the bite of a tsetse fly, is caused by a parasite attacking the central nervous system,” BBC writes (3/31). The WHO estimates “around 50,000-70,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with” sleeping sickness, according to the press release.

“The disease has two stages, the second of which is particularly difficult to treat in poverty-stricken rural areas, where many victims live,” the release continues. “Of the two drugs currently available, one – an arsenic-based drug – has fatal side effects in around one in 20 patients, and the other, eflornithine, is costly, requires prolonged hospital treatment and is not effective against all forms of the disease” (4/1).

“Despite some efforts and some promising candidates, no new drug has been added for HAT treatment,” said Jose Ramon Franco, a WHO medical officer, IRIN reports. Particularly challenging, Franco explained, was the task of creating a drug capable of killing the parasite without harming the brain of infected patients (4/1).

According to the press release, the study “shows promise for the development of effective, orally administered, low toxicity drugs to treat sleeping sickness.” Paul Wyatt of the University of Dundee said, “We now have a valid drug target for HAT and have found leads for drugs which can be dosed orally. These two findings represent significant strides in the development of a full blown drug against sleeping sickness suitable for clinical trials” (4/1).

According to Wyatt, the researchers are now in the process of developing drugs that could be ready for testing in clinical trials within 18 months, IRIN adds (4/1).

13 U.S. Lawmakers Address NTDs

In related news, VOA News reports that “[t]hirteen lawmakers have sent a letter to USAID about leishmaniasis, sleeping sickness, Chagas disease and Buruli ulcer, which are in the group referred to as” neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). According to the new service, the letter was supported by Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi), who earlier this month, along with Doctors Without Borders, “briefed members of Congress and the administration on the need for more funding.”

DNDi Executive Director Jana Armstrong talked to VOANews about funding NTDs and the current focus of U.S. efforts that include seven other diseases (DeCapua, 3/31).

IPS Examines NTD Conference In Brazil

Inter Press Service also reports on a three-day, WHO-sponsored meeting in Rio de Janeiro to discuss ways to attract attention to NTDs as well as investment in treatments for them. “The results of meetings like this one will provide the basis for drawing up a global report in 2011 to provide guidance for the concerned agencies and countries,” the news service writes.

Co-organized by Brazil’s Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) and PAHO, the meeting addressed how to fill in “gap[s] in public health provision[s]” for NTDs. FIOCRUZ’s Tania Araujo-Jorge said, “At present there are greater opportunities to obtain funds from companies and foundations, but the priorities have yet to be defined. Financing is being dispersed among a number of different research studies.”

The article includes facts about the social and economic burden of NTDs worldwide and the emergence of public-private partnerships to develop drugs to treat such diseases (Frayssinet, 3/31).