Wellcome Trust grant of over £2 million awarded

Friday 15th September, 2017

An interdisciplinary team of scientists, including Christina Cobbold from the School of Mathematics and Statistics and Richard McCulloch from the Wellcome Centre for Molecular Parasitology, have been awarded over £2 million by the Wellcome Trust to research African sleeping sickness.

The parasites that cause African sleeping sickness are masters of disguise. They can hide from the immune system by replacing the proteins on their surface, constantly changing to avoid being recognised and destroyed. This process has been studied by scientists for over forty years and its molecular details are well known, at least for one species of the parasite, Trypanosoma brucei. However, this is not the most important trypanosome species in sub Saharan Africa, and most of our knowledge is based on laboratory studies that may not well represent how the parasite operates in the real-world. Now, a team of scientists has been awarded over £2 million by the Wellcome Trust to find out how the most prevalent trypanosomes, Trypanosoma congolense and Trypanosoma vivax, establish infections and survive in animals, where they cause enormous economic hardship through a livestock disease in Africa called ‘nagana’. This name is derived from the Zulu word for ‘useless’, highlighting the devastating impact the parasite has on afflicted cattle. The teams, based in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Lisbon, Heidelberg and Baltimore, will pool their expertise to discover how these livestock parasites establish long term infections through immune evasion and maximise their chances of spread.

Lead researcher Professor Keith Matthews, based at the University of Edinburgh, says “We think these important livestock trypanosomes are doing things very differently. Our collaboration has the possibility to identify vulnerable points in the parasite’s defences that could be targeted using drug therapy or even vaccines – something previously considered impossible. The consequences for economic improvement in sub Saharan Africa could be enormous.’