STEM Majors

A team of researchers from University of Georgia was awarded $2.6 million by the National Institute of Health to assist in developing a treatment for human African Trypanosomiasis, otherwise known as African sleeping sickness, according to a UGA press release from Aug. 22.

The disease, commonly referred to as HAT, results from a bite from a parasitic insect called a tsetse fly. The fly multiplies in subcutaneous tissues and will eventually cause central nervous system problems if left untreated.

The disease causes behavior changes, confusion, lack of coordination and sleep disturbances. If left untreated, the disease is often fatal.

“Hat is a disease of poverty, so there is little incentive, understandably, for large pharmaceutical industries to be invested,” said Kojo Mensa-Wilmot, a UGA Department of Cellular Biology professor, in the press release.

Mensa-Wilmot is the leader of the team that was awarded the grant. According to the press release, the team has made notable progress in finding a treatment for humans by developing a way to cure HAT in mice.

Mensa-Wilmot said through cellular biology, they have discovered a small molecule that could cease the duplication of the trypanasome cell which would stop the illness from spreading.

“There are immense challenges in understanding trypanosome biology because a significant number of their genes are not found in humans or yeasts, which are more intensely studied,” he said in the release.

The World Health Organization said on their website a this disease has a long history in Africa.

“By the mid-1960s the disease had been brought under control through intensive control programmes, resulting in fewer than 5,000 cases in the whole continent,” the site said. “However, surveillance lapsed thereafter and the disease re-emerged, reaching epidemic proportions in several regions by 1970.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 10,000 new cases of this illness are reported annually to the WHO. The disease is only found in regions of sub-saharan Africa and is often left untreated due to a lack of resources and medication.

Individuals living or travelling in rural areas of Africa are the most susceptible to the disease. Within the last ten years, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is responsible for “over 75 percent of reported cases,” the WHO website said.

Though there is no official treatment for the disease right now, Mensa-Wilmot said in the press release that two compounds are currently undergoing a clinical trial.

“The pipeline for new anti-trypanosome drugs needs to be bolstered,” he said.

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