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New tool in the fight against tropical diseases

Scientists have developed a novel tool that exploits baker’s yeast to speed up the development of new drugs to fight multiple tropical diseases, including malaria, schistosomiasis and African sleeping sickness.

The unique screening method uses yeasts that have been genetically engineered to express parasite and human proteins to identify chemical compounds that target disease-causing parasites but do not affect their human hosts.

Parasitic diseases affect millions of people annually, often in the most deprived parts of the world. Every year, malaria alone infects over 200 million people, killing an estimated 655,000 individuals, mostly under the age of five. Unfortunately, our ability to treat malaria, which is caused by Plasmodium parasites, has been compromised by the emergence of parasites that are resistant to the most commonly used drugs. There is also a pressing need for new treatments targeting other parasitic diseases, which have historically been neglected.

Currently, drug-screening methods for these diseases use live, whole parasites. However, this method has several limitations. First, it may be extremely difficult or impossible to grow the parasite, or at least one of its life cycle stages, outside of an animal host. For example, the parasite Plasmodium vivax, responsible for the majority of cases of malaria in South America and South-East Asia, cannot be continuously cultivated in laboratory conditions. Second, the current methods give no insight into how the compound interacts with the parasite or the toxicity of the compound to humans.

In an effort to develop new drugs to fight parasitic diseases, scientists from the University of Cambridge collaborated with computer scientists at The University of Manchester to create a cheaper and more efficient anti-parasitic drug-screening method. The clever screening method identifies chemical compounds which target the enzymes from parasites but not those from their human hosts, thus enabling the early elimination of compounds with potential side effects.

Professor Ross King, in Manchester’s School of Computer Science based in the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, said: “We have created strains of yeast that in a test tube mimic a human infected with different tropical diseases.”

Professor Steve Oliver, from the Cambridge Systems Biology Centre and Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, said: “Our screening method provides a faster and cheaper approach that complements the use of whole parasites for screening. This means that fewer experiments involving the parasites themselves, often in infected animals, need to be carried out.”

The new method uses genetically engineered baker’s yeast, which either expresses important parasite proteins or their human counterparts. The different yeast cells are labelled with fluorescent proteins to monitor the growth of the individual yeast strains while they grow in competition with one another. High-throughput is provided by growing three to four different yeast strains together in the presence of each candidate compound. This approach also provides high sensitivity (since drug-sensitive yeasts will lose out to drug-resistant strains in the competition for nutrients), reduces costs, and is highly reproducible.

The scientists can then identify the chemical compounds that inhibit the growth of the yeast strains carrying parasite-drug targets, but fail to inhibit the corresponding human protein (thus excluding compounds that would cause side-effects for humans taking the drugs). The compounds can then be explored for further development into anti-parasitic drugs.

In order to demonstrate the effectiveness of their screening tool, the scientists tested it on Trypanosoma brucei, the parasite that causes African sleeping sickness. By using the engineered yeasts to screen for chemicals that would be effective against this parasite, they identified potential compounds and tested them on live parasites cultivated in the lab. Of the 36 compounds tested, 60 per cent were able to kill or severely inhibit the growth of the parasites (under standard lab conditions).

The research, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), was published today (27 February) in the journal Open Biology.

Ends

Notes for editors

The paper ‘Yeast-based automated high throughput screens to identify anti-parasitic lead compounds,’ is published in the 27 February edition of Open Biology

For further information contact:

Genevieve Maul
Office of Communications
University of Cambridge

Tel: 01223 765542
Mob: 07774 017464
Email: Genevieve.maul@admin.cam.ac.uk

Or Aeron Haworth
Media Relations
Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences
The University of Manchester

Tel: 0161 275 8383
Mob: 07717 881563
Email: aeron.haworth@manchester.ac.uk

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