Technology & Science

Sleeping sickness breakthrough announced

A breakthrough in treating sleeping sickness has been announced by Scottish, British and Canadian researchers.

A breakthrough in treating sleeping sickness has been announced by British and Canadian researchers.

They say they have found a compound that can kill the parasite that causes the disease by halting its growth on an enzymatic level, opening the door to drugs that will be able to fight the disease. Sleeping sickness kills 30,000 Africans each year.

"This is one of the most significant findings made in recent years in terms of drug discovery and development for neglected diseases," said Prof. Paul Wyatt, director of the drug discovery for tropical diseases program at the University of Dundee, Scotland, in a release.

Sleeping sickness is a fatal parasitic disease that afflicts tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans globally. The disease, known as trypanosomiasis, spreads through the bite of a tsetse fly.

It consist of two stages: one which causes fever, headaches, joint pain and itching and second stage in which the parasite infects the brain, causing the sleeping disturbances which give it its name, according to the World Health Organization.

Drugs currently used to treat sleeping sickness are very toxic. One medication, Melarsoprol, is an arsenic-based drug that causes death in one in 20 patients. The other drug, Eflornithine, is expensive and ineffective against certain forms of the disease and must be administered in a hospital for long periods of time.

The new medications will be manufactured in an oral form, making it easier to administer the drugs, say researchers.  

They predict the the drugs will be available for clinical trials in 18 months.

The researchers involved in the study were from the University of Dundee, University of York, England, and the Structural Genomics Consortium in Toronto. Their findings are published in the April 2010 issue of Nature.