Glasgow receives $3 million from the Gates Foundation to study sleeping sickness

Published: 15 January 2010

Funding will go towards developing new models to test sleeping sickness drug efficiency.

The University of Glasgow has received a $3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to further the treatment of sleeping sickness, otherwise known as Human African Trypanosomasis. 

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, Professor Mike Barrett, an expert in Biochemical Parasitology in the university’s Faculty of Biomedical and Life Sciences (FBLS) and Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology, said the funds will be split between Glasgow and collaborators at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, led by Professor Simon Croft.

Professor 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.

tsetse fly

Professor Barrett said:  “We are delighted with the grant. With this project we hope to be able to reduce the amount of time required to determine the effect of a drug against parasites within the brain from in excess of six months to just a few weeks. In theory, this will mean that 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.”

Current 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 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” .

Earlier this year the Gates Foundation invited submissions from both the University of Glasgow and London School of Hygiene & 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.

Professor Barrett added: “Having collaborated with the London team for over a decade in seeking new cures for neglected diseases linking in this way seemed a great idea. Our areas of expertise are perfectly complementary and this should ensure we reach our goals within three years.”

The foundation also funds the Consortium for Parasitic Drug Development (CPDD), based at the University of North Carolina in the States, to which both Professor Barrett and Professor Croft belong.

Other members of University of Glasgow team include Professor Jeremy Mottram of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology and FBLS, Professor Peter Kennedy and Professor Jim Brewer, both of the Medical Faculty, Dr Andy Pitt of FBLS and Dr Jean Rodgers of the Veterinary Faculty.

For more media information please contact Eleanor Cowie, Media Relations Officer at the University of Glasgow, on Telephone: 0141 330 3683 or Email:

For more information on London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine please see:

First published: 15 January 2010

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