CAFLS scientists receive major NIH grant to study African sleeping sickness

CLEMSON — Clemson University scientists in the College of Agriculture, Forestry & Life Sciences (CAFLS) have received a $347,263 two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to discover metabolic targets that could lead to a cure for African sleeping sickness.

Members of the interdisciplinary research team are James Morris, professor, Meredith Morris, assistant professor, both in the Department of Genetics and Biochemistry, College of Agriculture, Forestry & Life Sciences; and Kenneth Christensen, associate professor and Christine Ackroyd from the Department of Chemistry, College of Engineering and Science.

Approximately 60 million people are at risk for the disease in sub-Saharan Africa where most people live on less than $2 a day. Tens of thousands of people in endemic areas are infected, which is fatal without treatment. In these areas African sleeping sickness can be responsible for more deaths than HIV.

Humans and livestock are infected when they are bitten by the tsetse fly, which carries the deadly parasite, Trypanosoma brucei.

Existing treatments for African sleeping sickness can be toxic and are often unavailable due to war and regional conflicts.

“In these areas of conflict, screening for the disease breaks down, unsanitary conditions prevail and when treatment is available, often health-care workers cannot reach those in need,” said James Morris.

Because the tsetse fly also infects livestock, mostly cattle, the agricultural productivity of the region, an area approximately the size of the continental United States, is based mostly on subsistence farming methods. Grazing land capable of supporting hundreds of thousands of cattle, sheep and goats has been kept largely out of production and few animals are available for plowing fields.

A goal of the research is to develop microscopic sensors to determine cellular conditions during the infectious stage of the lifecycle of T. brucei. Determining pH and glucose levels in the part of the parasite that generates the energy necessary for cell survival will enable the scientists to understand the complex metabolism of how the cell gets its energy, and when and how to disable it.  The scientists aim to develop targets that will lead to the development of effective therapeutic treatments for this disease and others.

This research will have implications for understanding the biology and potential treatments for African sleeping sickness and other parasitic diseases found in other parts of the world, including Chagas’ disease and Leishmaniasis, which affect millions of people worldwide. Additionally, as parts of the planet become warmer due to climate change, the range of insects carrying these parasitic diseases will expand, increasing demands for safe and available treatment.

James Morris and Meredith Morris are scientists with the Eukaryotic Pathogens Innovation Center (EPIC), founded in February 2013, as an interdisciplinary research cooperative at Clemson University.  EPIC stands at the forefront of biomedical research on eukaryotic pathogens, which are the causative agents of some of the most devastating and intractable diseases of humans including malaria, amoebic dysentery, sleeping sickness, Chagas’ disease, and fungal meningitis. Globalization has resulted in an increase in such infections in the US and many eukaryotic pathogens are also classified as bioterrorism agents and/or neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). For more information on EPIC visit http://www.clemson.edu/cafls/epic.