Scientists from the University of Edinburgh have collaborated with international life sciences contract research organisation Selcia to launch a £2.5m project to develop new drugs for the treatment of sleeping sickness, which threatens almost 70 million people in Africa.
Sleeping sickness is spread by the bite of the tsetse fly and is prevalent in west and central Africa.
The new treatments are expected to combat the virus, which attacks the nervous system and can plunge people into comas, organ failure and death.
It is expected that the existing medicines for the disease can cause debilitating side-effects or be fatal.
Scientists intend to develop safe, effective medicines that can be given easily, as some drugs must be administered using a drip, which makes treatment time-consuming and expensive.
The search for new treatments will build on previous studies on how the infection occurs.
Scientists have demonstrated that the parasite is able to survive in the bloodstream by using enzymes to convert blood sugars into the energy it needs to stay alive, while they have also identified potential drug compounds that can stop two of these enzymes from functioning, so killing the parasite.
Based on these drug compounds, scientists aim to design a drug that will be effective in small doses, and will work even on advanced infections.
Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the 30-month project will seek to test the compounds in the lab and in mice, ahead of further studies that could involve human trials.
The new treatments could be developed into veterinary medicines for infections caused by the same parasite in livestock, which costs farmers an estimated $2bn per annum.
University of Edinburgh School of Biological Sciences professor Malcolm Walkinshaw said: "Sleeping sickness is a widespread, neglected disease, which, if left untreated, is invariably fatal and drugs are poorly effective. We hope to develop new forms of treatment that can be easily administered and will eventually help curb the disease’s impact."
Image: Trypanosoma forms in a blood smear. Photo: courtesy of Myron G Schultz.