The fight against African Trypanosomiasis…
Animal African Trypanosomiasis (AAT) is a devastating animal disease that leads to the death of millions of livestock, such as cattle, sheep, goats, and so on, in sub-Saharan Africa leaving several millions at risk. It also affects wild animals! Flagellated, unicellular organisms known as trypanosomes are the causative agents, and there are several species of them. Trypanosomes are transmitted by tsetse flies and mechanistically by some other blood-feeding flies.
Typically, trypanosomes are not supposed to be human-infective; this is because the human serum contains a particular component(s) known as “trypanolytic factor” which kills trypanosomes immediately as it encounters it. However, two species of trypanosomes (Trypanosoma brucei gambiense and Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense) have undergone some adaptations that enable them to infect humans. These species cause human disease, called Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT), with clinical manifestations which occur in two stages. In the early stage, the haemolymphatic system is affected; this is evidenced by intermittent fever, headaches and generally deteriorating health. The late stage (meningoencephalitic stage) is characterised by neurological complications because trypanosomes cross the blood-brain barrier to wreak havoc. As a result, the circadian cycle is disrupted hence HAT is fondly known as “sleeping sickness”.
Although the human disease is as devastating as the animal disease, there has been a massive decline in the number of recorded cases every year, and this has placed HAT in a class of diseases known as Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). NTDs affect the poorest countries of the world, which include African countries. Considering how expensively tedious the process of drug discovery and development is (it technically costs billions of dollars and takes over a decade) as well as the small population and economic status of people affected by NTDs, there is a lack of incentive for profit-driven pharmaceutical companies to invest in interventions for NTDs. It is safe to assume that a condition that endangers about sixty-one million people is worth investing in – that is the population of people at risk of HAT. Well, that is a story for another day; I am currently interested in AAT!
My research interests…
AAT has a huge socio-economic impact. Millions of dollars are spent annually on drugs that are not satisfactory: their efficacy has been dulled by increasing levels of drug resistance and their unacceptable toxicity profiles (they literally kill the hosts in a bid to kill the parasites). Unfortunately, there has not been sufficient efforts towards the development of new drugs to tackle this disease. This is what makes my research highly relevant. I am interested in identifying compounds with trypanocidal activity and understanding how these compounds act. A thorough understanding of the effect(s) trypanocidal compounds have on trypanosomes and their hosts would translate to the development of new, effective treatments in the near future.
…and the PhD experience
While research in an essential component of my PhD, I also realise that the PhD programme by itself provides a beautiful opportunity to develop and gain mastery of transferable skills that would be relevant in my career and life in general. I aim to share my experience through this 4-year journey and hope you find the lessons I have learnt useful to you.