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About Human African Trypanosomiasis

Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT) is caused by the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma brucei and is transmitted by the tsetse fly. The disease is classically characterised by an early bloodstream phase (stage 1) after which the parasite may cross into the brain (stage 2) and cause neurological disorders and death. However, there is substantial variation among patients, with individuals that are naturally able to control or even eliminate the parasite and others that succumb to the disease.

Two species of human infective parasites

There are two species of T. brucei which cause disease in man. T.b. rhodesiense causes an acute form of the disease whereas T.b. gambiense, which is responsible for the majority of human cases, results in a slower progressing chronic syndrome. T.b. rhodesiense infections progress rapidly to stage 2, and consequently stage 1 disease individuals are less frequently detected. In addition, the lack of a specific diagnostic test (in contrast to T.b. gambiense) means that asymptomatic individuals cannot currently be easily detected.

  Cattle
Sleeping sickness distribution

 

An endemic disease in East and West Africa

The human disease and related condition in cattle, Nagana, is endemic in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Efforts to control HAT in the past seventy years have been based on either insecticide application to reduce the vector population or on surveillance and drug treatment. Although this has had some degree of success, epidemics and long-term disease foci still exist. The use of insecticides is increasingly considered to be environmentally unacceptable and there is evdience that resistance to existing drugs is increasing. Therefore, there is a desperate need for new treatments and intervention strategies.

The importance of TrypanoGEN

It is important to develop new approaches that could lead to novel therapeutic interventions. One route towards this goal is to identify the genes and pathways that determine naturally occurring resistance to infection. Resistance or tolerance to HAT infection has recently been described among the human population with resistant as well as susceptible individuals being detected. The TrypanoGEN network is currently investigating this phenomenon by addressing two key questions:

(1) What are the host genetic determinants of disease susceptibility/resistance?
(2) Are they the same in different African populations and in the disease caused by different human infective trypanosome sub-species?

TrypanoGEN scientists are developing a deeper understanding of the natural mechanisms of disease resistance/susceptibility with the belief that through this knowledge, novel intervention strategies can be developed. In addition, being able to identify susceptible individuals in the population will contribute to ongoing surveillance and control strategies.

  tsetse fly

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