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New compound blocks parasite which affects millions


A breakthrough by Edinburgh scientists may spell the end for a disease-causing tropical parasite which infects millions of people every year.

Leishmania is a single-celled organism which spreads between hosts by sandfly bites. Once inside the host, they lurk and multiply within white blood cells, such as macrophages. The parasite can trigger a whole host of diseases, collectively known as Leishmaniasis, which can range from painful sores on the skin, to Black Fever, which claims around 50,000 lives every year. Treatment can be difficult, given the diversity of strains involved and the fact that resistance to current therapies is rapidly increasing.

However, this may all be about to change with work funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Teams at the University of Edinburgh and the National Institute for Health in the US, led by Professor Malcolm Walkenshaw, screened 300,000 potential drug molecules to find compounds capable of blocking a vital enzyme in the parasite. Structural tests were used to validate any candidates which appeared particularly effective.

Professor Walkinshaw said, 'By testing thousands of possible compounds we have identified an interesting way to block a crucial function of this parasite. This could be used in developing a new class of drug against the dangerous and disfiguring disease.'

However, the work may have wider reaching applications. The enzyme targeted, which is crucial in the conversion of food into energy, is found in many organisms, including humans. It is hoped that further work would not only lead to an effective cure for Leishmaniases, but could also be used in other diseases and could even be used to starve tumours.

The research was published in the Biochemical Journal.


Rachel Huddart


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