British scientists have discovered a new way of tackling the fatal parasitic disease African sleeping sickness which they say could pave the way for the development of safe, effective drugs to treat it.
The scientists, whose study was published in the journal Nature, said new drugs could be ready for human clinical trials in around 18 months.
"This is one of the most significant findings made in recent years in terms of drug discovery and development for neglected diseases," said Professor Paul Wyatt, director of the Drug Discovery for Tropical Diseases programme at Dundee University, who led the research.
The World Health Organisation estimates that between 50,000 and 70,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with the sleeping sickness, or human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), which is spread by the bite of the tsetse fly. Left untreated, it is usually fatal.
Wyatt said his team had discovered a compound that disrupts an enzyme called N-myristoyl transferase, or NMT, which is essential for the survival and growth of the parasites injected into the victim by the tsetse fly's bite.
Their study showed this NMT-inhibitor compound leads to rapid killing of trypanosomes in laboratory tests and cures trypanosomiasis in mice.
The disease, called sleeping sickness because of the disruption to the sleep cycle caused by parasites infecting the brain, has two stages, the second of which begins when the parasites have penetrated the central nervous system.
The second stage is particularly difficult to treat in poor rural areas where many victims live, the scientists said.
Of the two drugs currently available, one -- based on arsenic -- has fatal side effects in around one in 20 patients, and the other, eflornithine from Sanofi Aventis, requires prolonged hospital treatment and is not effective against all forms of the disease.
Increasing reports of treatment failures with these drugs have raised fears that soon there may be no effective treatment.
Wyatt said he hoped his team's research would change that.
"We now have a valid drug target for HAT and have found leads for drugs which can be dosed orally. These two findings represent significant strides in the development of a full-blown drug against sleeping sickness suitable for clinical trials."
African sleeping sickness is one of a group known as "neglected tropical diseases" which often struggle to attract research attention from large pharmaceutical firms.
These firms fear investment in research will not pay off as most sufferers live in poor countries and cannot afford to buy expensive medicines.
GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co, Pfizer and others recently announced new initiatives involving collaborating more closely in the search for treatments for neglected diseases.
India has found thousands of dead ducks infected by a highly contagious bird flu virus in the southern state of Kerala
The outbreak of myiasis, also known as screw worm, stems from deteriorating water and sanitation conditions.
Joji Morishita, Japan's commissioner to the International Whaling Commission, said the new proposal is Tokyo's latest attempt to pursue sustainable whaling according to scientific principles.
In Europe, obesity is to blame for around 6.5 percent of all new cancers a year, or around 65,000 cases
Medical workers risking their lives to fight Ebola in West Africa talk about the challenges they face.
The woman 32, died at a fever hospital in the Nile Delta five days after she was admitted on contracting the virus, Hossam Abdel-Ghafar said
According to the World Health Organization, more than 80,000 children in Pakistan have not been immunized against polio
A total of 5,459 people have died in the worst Ebola outbreak on record, according the World Health Organization
Plague, a bacterial disease, is mainly spread from one rodent to another by fleas.
Felix Baez Sarria, the first Cuban to contract the deadly disease, will be treated in a Geneva hospital.
No Ebola cases detected for two incubation periods, says World Health Organization
The World Health Organization and leading global health specialists have criticised Saudi Arabia for failing to properly investigate the causes of MERS.
UNICEF predicts that the number of children orphaned by Ebola – which currently stands at nearly 200 – will reach as many as 2,000
UN Article 82 could mean millions in additional costs for drilling companies.
The figures, through Nov. 16, represent a jump of 243 deaths and 732 cases since those issued last Friday, and cases continue to be under-reported, the WHO said in its latest update.
The infectious disease causes total paralysis in a matter of hours. It affects mainly children under five years of age.