International collaboration provides new insights into the fight against African sleeping sickness

10 July 2018


The African trypanosome causes African sleeping sickness, a hideous disease transmitted by the tsetse fly that, untreated, leads to character disintegration, comma and death. The trypanosome parasite evades the patient’s immune system by ‘antigenic variation’, which is the swapping one protective surface coat for another.

In a recent publication in Nature Microbiology, Mike Ferguson’s group collaborated with Erec Stebbins and Nina Papavasiliou at the German Cancer Centre, Heidelberg, to describe another “trick of the tryp” – namely the sprinkling of sugar (or protein O-glycosylation, to be precise) onto some of the protective coats to make them much harder for the patient to make antibodies to. Good news for the parasite, but bad news for the patient.

Mike said: “Understanding how the parasite ticks, and its full repertoire of defence systems, helps us figure out new ways of combatting the disease. This new discovery may highlight a chink in its armour – if we can now figure out how stop the parasite going into sugary stealth mode, our immune systems may be able to cope with the infection.”

African trypanosomes evade immune clearance by O-glycosylation of the VSG surface coat. Nature Microbiology (2018). DOI: 10,1038/s41564-018-0187-6