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Clemson scientist receives NIH grant to continue study of deadly tropical disease

Clemson University


IMAGE: This is Jim Morris, right, with senior Katie Gray, who is doing undergraduate research in his lab. view more

Credit: Clemson University

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson University researcher James Morris received a $360,079 competitive renewal grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue his study of Trypanosoma brucei, the single-celled parasite that causes African sleeping sickness.

African sleeping sickness is a deadly disease that potentially affects 60 million people living in the poorest regions of rural sub-Saharan Africa, where most people live on less than $2 a day. The disease is opportunistic, with resurgences occurring as a result of civil wars and human conflicts.

"In these areas of conflict, screening for the disease breaks down, unsanitary conditions prevail and when treatment is available health-care workers often cannot reach those in need. Existing treatments can be toxic to patients and are often not even available," said Morris, an associate professor in the department of genetics and biochemistry.

The disease is carried by the tsetse fly and humans are infected when bitten. During its lifecycle, the disease organism must adapt to both the insect and the human environment to survive. It does this in part by "sensing" changes in glucose levels and responding accordingly.

Morris and his colleagues are studying the regulatory mechanisms that modulate the expression of two genes that make this possible.

"One of our goals is to identify and characterize pathways that T. brucei uses to modulate metabolic and developmental regulation," said Morris.

Understanding this process will provide new approaches for much-needed development of therapeutics for the parasite and could provide insight into glucose sensing in a variety of organisms, including those that cause other tropical diseases.

"African sleeping sickness and other tropical diseases are not only major global health problems, they are tied to poverty, war and a lack of access to education," he said. "Fighting these diseases is a necessary step to improving the quality of life in these regions of the world."

Because of this, the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have advanced support and funding to help control African sleeping sickness and other neglected tropical diseases such as Chagas' disease and hookworm.

Morris notes that as global climate changes occur, "it is important that we understand and be prepared to confront diseases that in the past have been confined to tropical areas. Warmer regions could lead to more disease-carrying insects, such as mosquitoes."


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