Pioneering research on sleeping sickness wins MERIAL Award for Parasitology

April 26, 2007

Brussels, Belgium -- Stefan Magez, a VIB researcher connected to the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, has won this year's MERIAL Award for Parasitology. For a number of years now, he has been studying the parasite that causes sleeping sickness (African trypanosomiasis). This deadly disease strikes about 300,000 new patients each year, thousands of whom die. Not only is Stefan Magez trying to discover how the parasite makes us sick, he's also searching for methods to detect the disease more quickly, to treat it more effectively and, ultimately, to prevent it. He has now laid the foundation for a possible therapy, and the initial results in mice are very promising. MERIAL is rewarding Stefan Magez for his research to date with the prestigious MERIAL Award for Parasitology, which includes a monetary award of €2500.

Sleeping sickness

Sleeping sickness afflicts both humans and livestock and occurs primarily in Sub-Sahara Africa. Every year, thousands of people die of this disease. The death of livestock in the countries afflicted leads to an economic loss of more than one billion euro. Today, vaccination against trypanosoma, the parasite that causes sleeping sickness, is not at all effective, and the only remedy that works in all stages of infection is based on arsenic, which has severe side effects and can be deadly itself. So, Stefan Magez and his colleagues are seeking a possible alternative medicine.

An important role for TNF

Since 1992, this Flemish researcher has been focusing his attention on the role that TNF (Tumor Necrosis Factor) plays in sleeping sickness. Our body produces TNF as a protection against a number of micro-organisms. About 20 years ago, scientists discovered that animals that have been infected with African trypanosoma produce far too much TNF. Through his research, Stefan Magez has shown that a trypanosoma infection prompts the immune system to produce TNF to eliminate the parasite from the body - but for some reason the amount of TNF produced is excessive. This over-production of TNF leads to symptoms such as anemia and extreme weight loss, which can result in death.

The search for a vaccine

These findings have led Magez and his colleagues to try to prevent the over-production of TNF. To do this, they have formulated vaccines that target the components of trypanosoma that induce TNF production. Initial results in mice are very encouraging, and the researchers will test the medicine this year in Kenya, where the disease occurs primarily in cattle.

Rewarding innovative research in the Benelux

The MERIAL Award, which honors a medical or veterinary parasitologist, is awarded annually to a post-doctoral researcher from the Benelux who has conducted outstanding innovative work. The prize is being awarded for the tenth time this year. MERIAL, the Dutch Parasitology Association, and the Belgian Parasitology Association distribute the prize.

VIB (the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology)

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