The parasite that causes deadly sleeping sickness has its own biological clock that makes it more vulnerable to medications during the afternoon, according to international research that may help improve treatments for one of Africa’s most lethal diseases. The finding, from the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSWMC), could be especially beneficial for patients whose bodies can’t handle side effects of toxic treatments used to eradicate the parasite. By knowing the optimal time to administer these medications – which can be fatal – doctors hope to reduce the duration and dosage of the treatment and save more lives. “This research has opened a door,” said Dr. Filipa Rijo-Ferreira, first author of the study from the O’Donnell Brain Institute. “If the same therapeutic effect can be obtained with a lower dose, then it may be possible to reduce the mortality associated with the treatment.” Establishing that parasites have their own internal clock is a key step in finding new ways to treat a variety of parasitic conditions, from sleeping sickness to malaria. While many of these diseases are often not deadly, sleeping sickness has been among the most lethal. The condition – known formally as African trypanosomiasis – is transmitted through the bite of the tsetse fly and threatens tens of millions of people in sub-Saharan African countries. After entering the body, the parasite causes such symptoms as inverted sleeping cycles, fever, muscle weakness, and itching. It eventually invades the central nervous system and, depending on its type, can kill its host in anywhere from a few months to several years. Control efforts have significantly reduced the number of cases over the last decade.
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