‘Dipstick’ test tackles fatal sleeping sickness

tubesResearchers from the School of Biosciences have developed a quick and simple diagnosis method, similar to a dipstick pregnancy test, to fight a deadly sleeping sickness.

The test to diagnose Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT) just requires a pin-prick blood sample and will remove the need to take complex equipment into remote areas of sub-Saharan Africa.

Existing tests rely on extracts directly from the dangerous parasite, but now the scientists at the School of Biosciences have designed a way to test for the disease more easily and safely, and therefore more cheaply.

The next generation test was developed by Dr Barrie Rooney and Professor Mark Smales, together with School colleagues, working with international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in research funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Flexible Interchange Programme (FLIP).

Millions of people are at risk of HAT, which is usually fatal if untreated, with patients falling into a coma before death. Around 5,000 cases are reported each year, with severe social and economic costs, and some areas at risk remain uncovered by surveillance and control efforts. The disease is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma brucei gambiense (T.b. gambiense) and spread by the bite of infected tsetse flies.

Dr Rooney has been involved with MSF mobile HAT screening teams in central African countries for over 10 years. Traditional testing involves a large team in remote areas doing time consuming microscopic work, and painful lumbar punctures, which requires electricity and refrigeration.

By combining the latest genome databases and old fashioned fermentation techniques the researchers have come up with a fast, simple way of making robust and reliable tests. The new tests are designed to be heat stable and user-friendly like a dipstick pregnancy test.

The paper Expression of Trypanosoma brucei gambiense Antigens in Leishmania tarentolae. Potential for Use in Rapid Serodiagnostic Tests (RDTs) is published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.