Gates Foundation to fund Swansea work on sleeping sickness

The Gates Foundation, set up by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, has announced that it is to award $100,000 to fund research at Swansea University into sleeping sickness.

Sleeping sickness, which can be fatal, is carried by the tsetse fly and affects humans and animals across Africa.  Thousands of new cases are reported each year in humans and animals, and 60 million people live at risk of infection.

Tsetse flyThe funding, part of the Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations awards, will support the work of Professor Paul Dyson in the College of Medicine, an expert in microbiology. 

Picture: tstetse fly close-up

Professor Dyson's research will look at using bacteria in the gut of the tsetse fly to neutralise the effect of the parasites that cause sleeping sickness.

‌Sleeping sickness is a major public health problem in Central Africa, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and South Sudan, areas hardest hit with civil unrest and where basic community health efforts and other social infrastructure have broken down.

‌‌It’s also a problem for livestock, affecting cattle and pigs, leading to reduced milk production and muscle wastage.  Native African wild mammals, naturally more immune to the disease than domesticated animals, serve as carriers and disease reservoirs. 

  • The cost to African agriculture is around US $4.5 billion per year
  • Approximately 70% of the humid and semi-humid zones of sub-Sahara are devoid of cattle and farming systems as these regions are prime tsetse habitat.

Professor Paul DysonProfessor Paul Dyson (pictured) said:  
“The Grand Challenges Explorations funding from the Gates Foundation will enable us, in collaboration with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, to develop and test the technology on a small scale in the next 18 months.

We’ll be using RNA interference, which is a natural process that cells use to turn down, or silence, the activity of specific genes.  The idea is to apply this using the Sodalis bacteria in the gut of the fly, with the aim of reaching the trypanosomes, which are the parasites that cause sleeping sickness.  

If we can use the bacteria to alter the trypanosome, it means we can gradually eradicate forms that are infectious to mammals, including humans.

In the long term, flies unable to transmit infectious trypanosomes will be bred and released to replace native populations."

Bill and Melinda GatesGrand Challenges Explorations is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Launched in 2008, over 850 people in more than 50 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants.  The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization. 

Initial grants of US$100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.

Picture:  Bill and Melinda Gates.  Copyright Gates Foundation