£2.3 million grant to uncover more about tropical diseases affecting some of world’s poorest populations

Thursday, 11 February 2021

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Scientists from three UK institutions including Oxford Brookes University have been awarded £2.3million to investigate how a parasite grows in humans.

The five-year project, which will be led by the University of Glasgow and is funded by the Wellcome Trust, will study the Leishmania parasite which spreads leishmaniasis - a disease that causes skin ulcers and damage to internal organs, bone marrow and the immune system; and which can be fatal if left untreated.

Parasitic disease affects some of poorest in the world

Leishmaniasis affects some of the poorest communities globally in tropical and subtropical parts of the world. The disease has been categorised as a ‘neglected tropical disease’ by the World Health Organisation due to limited research and control measures for the disease.

“There are approximately one million cases of leishmaniasis in the world at any one time,” says Dr Jack Sunter, from the Department of Biological and Medical Sciences at Oxford Brookes University.

“We’re aiming to gain a global understanding of leishmania - the parasite carried by sand flies which are responsible for spreading the leishmaniasis infection.

“We want to understand which proteins in the parasite are important for infecting humans, and which are important for growth. Both of these will allow us to understand how humans are infected, and how the disease then spreads within the body.”

Advances in genome modification allows study to continue

Although scientists sequenced all the genes in the leishmania parasite fifteen years ago, progress has been slow since then.

Now, using CRISPR genome modification technology, researchers can delete each gene individually and generate 9,000 leishmania mutants. From this, the team can determine whether or not an individual gene is important for causing disease.

Scientists will also tag proteins with a fluorescent marker which will enable them to work out where in the cell the protein is found and its function.

“These approaches will help us to understand how the parasite infects the body, and we will be able to analyse their specific functions in more detail,” adds Dr Sunter.

“Understanding more about this disease could lead to more effective treatments in the future.”

The research will also involve academics from the University of York and the University of Oxford, and is due to begin in April 2021.