Year of selection 2013
Institution Instituto de Medicina Molecular
A treatment that killed 10% of patients would certainly be considered unacceptable by modern medical standards. And yet, that is the best that doctors can currently offer victims of sleeping sickness. This disease, which strikes rural Africa, in particular, is caused by a parasite called trypanosome. It is passed to a human or animal by the bite of a tsetse fly, much like mosquitoes may transmit the parasite causing malaria. Once in a person’s blood, it travels to the brain where it interrupts the usual sleep/wake cycles. Victims are neither fully conscious nor fully asleep and, without today’s very aggressive drugs, the patient will die.
Fabien Guegan believes the parasite’s complex life cycle holds the key to halting sleeping sickness. Between the tsetse fly’s stomach and a person’s blood, trypanosome inhabits two very different environments. Yet, very quickly, it is able to adapt, changing its shape and metabolism by activating different genes. Dr. Guegan is hot on the trail of the molecules he thinks may act as orchestra conductors, synchronizing the many different elements of this transformation. Disrupting the “conductor” could make the whole trypanosome symphony fall apart. His strategy of targeting the transmission process inside the parasite could make it possible to block the spread between infected humans and animals and more tsetse flies. If so, this could mean a huge step forward in controlling sleeping sickness.
Sleeping sickness is a fatal disease caused by trypanosome, a parasite transmitted by the tsetse fly. Dr. Fabien Guegan is studying how trypanosomes survive in the human blood using an ingenious strategy to evade the immune system called antigenic variation. He is also studying how this parasite adapts to extreme environmental changes, passing from human blood to the tsetse fly midgut. Understanding the adaptive strategies used by trypanosome will provide new avenues for developing treatments.
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