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Bill Gates Gives Sh5 Billion for Sleeping Sickness in Africa

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Monday, February 22, 2010

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Kampala -- The University of Glasgow has received a $3m (sh5.8b) grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further the treatment of sleeping sickness (human African trypanosomiasis).

The money will go towards developing new models to test the ability of drugs to treat this fatal disease in the brain.

Lead investigator on the project, Prof. Mike Barrett, an expert in Biochemical Parasitology in the university's Faculty of Biomedical and Life Sciences and Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology, say the funds will be split between Glasgow and collaborators at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, led by Prof. Simon Croft.

Barrett welcomed the grant and praised the vision in funding tropical diseases which fall beyond the remit of most pharmaceutical companies given the presence of the disease among the world's poorest communities.

Sleeping sickness is widely recognised as one of Africa's neglected diseases, killing up to 50,000 people every year. Spread by tsetse flies, it causes an infection of the brain that is fatal if untreated.

The disease is caused by a tiny protozoan or single-celled parasite which enters a victim's bloodstream and later invades the brain.

This causes deterioration in the patient's mental function, including its sleep-wake patterns, which is why it is called sleeping sickness.

"Chemists can alter the structures of new chemicals that kill trypanosomes in ways that also optimise penetration of the brain on a much faster time scale than was previously possible," Barrett says.

Treatment for sleeping sickness is far from safe or effective. Melarsoprol, an arsenic-based drug, was the most common treatment for many years; despite being so toxic that it kills one in 20 patients who receive it.

The more recently introduced eflornithine, although safer, must be given by repeated injections over a two-week period, something very difficult to achieve in a clinical setting in rural Africa.

The study aims to use new technologies to develop versions of the trypanosome parasites that cause the disease, whose presence in the brain can be traced in mice.

The brain has a special structure called the blood-brain barrier that prevents most chemicals, like drugs, from entering. It is, therefore, difficult to design new drugs to enter the brain.

Earlier this year the Gates Foundation invited submissions from the University of Glasgow and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to set up a model to support other programmes it runs concerning the development of drugs for use against trypanosomiasis.

The quality of both proposals was such that the foundation recommended both institutions work together.

Barrett says: "Our areas of expertise are complementary. This should ensure we reach our goals in three years." The foundation also funds the consortium for parasitic drug development, based at the University of North Carolina in the US to which both Barrett and Croft belong.

Spread and Symptoms of Sleeping Sickness

Sleeping sickness is existent in Uganda, but some people brush it off, claiming the disease is caused by witchcraft. The national human trypanasomiasis referral health centre is in Namungalwe, Iganga district.

An outbreak of the disease was last recorded in Bugiri district last year. Tsetse flies, which transmit the disease, usually hide in shrubs, especially Lantana Camara, locally called kapanga.

The flies also transmit nagana to cattle. During the early stages, the parasites are mainly existent in the blood stream before they shift to the central nervous system, including the brain in later stages.

Most of the symptoms of the disease like dullness accompanied with deep sleep, partial madness and swelling of the neck arise from the parasitic attack on the brain.

The incubation period is about one week during which the patient feels persistent headache, fever, pain in muscles and joint discomfort. The lymph nodes in the groin and armpits also enlarge and there is a feeling of drowsiness and failure of sphincter muscles to hold urine.

In some instances, the patient may become aggressive, irritatingly noisy and strip naked like a mad person.

The northern and western parts of Uganda have a strain called gambiosis, while for eastern and central Uganda there is rhodensiosis.

Records show that cases of rhodensiosis are fewer compared to those of gambiosis. The incubation period of gambiosis is much longer as patients take up to six months or even one year to be diagnosed.


Copyright © 2010 New Vision

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