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Better tests for sleeping sickness
Date:5/22/2012

Lies Van Nieuwenhove, researcher at the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine, has produced proteins imitating typical parts of the sleeping sickness parasite. They can be used in more efficient diagnostic tests, without the need for culturing dangerous parasites.

Each year many thousands of Africans contract sleeping sickness. The cause is a unicellular parasite, a trypanosome, which is transmitted by the bite of tsetse flies. First the parasite multiplies in blood and lymph, while evading the human immune system. It then lodges in organs like heart and kidneys and finally in the brain. Patients become disoriented, their sleeping pattern disintegrates and they get motor and mental problems. This inevitably leads to coma and death. The World Health Organisation estimates that sleeping sickness each year claims 10 000 to 20 000 lives.

In an early stage the disease is easy to treat, but once the brain is invaded, the treatment becomes more complex and one must use medicines with dangerous, even deadly, side effects. So it is important to detect the infection early.

In the regions where Trypanosoma brucei gambiense is found, medical workers for decades already use a rapid diagnostic test, developed at the Institute of Tropical Medicine, to screen millions of people each year on the presence of antibodies in their blood.

But diagnostic test are not perfect: they always will miss cases, or on the contrary they see an infection where there isn't. A bit as the metal detectors at airports: too sensitive and they annoyingly go off on each buckle, earring or coin; a bit less sensitive and pocketknives start slipping trough.

In recent years the number of cases has come down substantially, thanks to campaigns against the disease, so error margins that were acceptable in the old days, because the tests still saved so many lives, now become inadmissible. Research scientist Lies Van Nieuwenhove set out to develop a new and better test.
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Contact: Lies Van Nieuwenhove
lvnieuwenhove@itg.be
32-496-274-434
Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp
Source:Eurekalert  

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