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Rapid 'dipstick' test tackles fatal sleeping sickness

December 15, 2015

Scientists 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.

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.

Existing tests rely on extracts directly from the dangerous parasite, but now scientists at the University of Kent have designed a way of making material more easily and safer, and therefore more cheaply.

The next generation test was developed by Dr Barrie Rooney and Professor Mark Smales with colleagues from the University of Kent, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to work with international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) as part of the BBSRC Flexible Interchange Programme (FLIP).

Dr Rooney said: "In 14 months we have gone from idea to validation of this new rapid diagnostic test.

"I have 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. For this you need electricity and refrigeration.

"By combining the latest genome databases and old fashioned fermentation techniques we 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.

"It will be a major improvement for screening and treatment of this deadly disease and speed us on the way to 'the elimination of sleeping sickness as a public health hazard' which is a World Health Organisation target."

The researchers were able to genetically engineer a parasite similar to T.b. gambiense, but which is safe and easy to grow, to produce antigens for HAT. These antigens bind to molecules in blood samples of patients infected with HAT, allowing the disease to be detected.

As well as being easy to carry out, fewer people will be needed to administer the tests and they take half as long to conduct as the traditional methods.

Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Executive Director, Science, said: "This is a brilliant example of exactly what the FLIP scheme is all about. FLIP funding allowed Dr Rooney to work with the University of Kent and MSF to design and develop this test in just 14 months.

"The promise and potential impact of this new diagnostic is obvious and I wish Dr Rooney success in the forthcoming work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"FLIP brings scientists into different environments where they can learn new skills and exploit their existing expertise in new collaborations, enhancing the impact of bioscience research."

In July Dr Rooney will travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to identify areas where field trials of the new rapid diagnostic test could be carried out, alongside an MSF HAT mobile team conducting screening and treatment.

Although the test has been developed for HAT, the method has potential to develop diagnostics for other similar tropical diseases such as Chagas disease and visceral leishmaniasis.

The BBSRC FLIP programme funds scientists to do work in a new environment to share knowledge and skills and develop collaborations. For more information visit: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/opportunities/2015/flexible-interchange-programme/

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. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pntd.0004271
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Contact: Chris Melvin, BBSRC Media Officer, 01793 414694 chris.melvin@bbsrc.ac.uk

Notes to Editors:

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £509M in world-class bioscience in 2014-15. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes

About University of Kent

Established in 1965, the University of Kent - the UK's European university - now has almost 20,000 students across campuses or study centres at Canterbury, Medway, Tonbridge, Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome.

It has been ranked: third for overall student satisfaction in the 2014 National Student Survey; 16th in the Guardian University Guide 2016; 23rd in the Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2016; and 22nd in the Complete University Guide 2015.

In the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2015-16, Kent is in the top 10% of the world's leading universities for international outlook.

Kent is ranked 17th in the UK for research intensity (REF 2014). It has world-leading research in all subjects and 97% of its research is deemed by the REF to be of international quality.

Along with the universities of East Anglia and Essex, Kent is a member of the Eastern Arc Research Consortium (http://www.kent.ac.uk/about/partnerships/eastern-arc.html).

The University is worth £0.7 billion to the economy of the south east and supports more than 7,800 jobs in the region. Student off-campus spend contributes £293.3m and 2,532 full-time-equivalent jobs to those totals.

In 2014, Kent received its second Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

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