Pathway to a cure

Roberto Docampo targets lethal parasites

Roberto Docampo

Barbara and Sanford Orkin/Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Cellular Biology

Department of Cellular Biology

Franklin College of Arts & Sciences

Written by Leigh Beeson

Published 10.27.17

Chagas disease and African sleeping sickness kill more than 10,000 people every year in Latin America and Africa.

Millions are currently living with the potentially deadly diseases, and tens of millions more are at risk of being infected.

With numbers like those, you’d expect more people to be paying attention. But neither Chagas nor sleeping sickness receives much press.

Roberto Docampo wants to change that.

“In some areas, you have 50 to 60 percent of people who are infected with Chagas disease,” says Docampo, the Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Cellular Biology. This obscenely high disease burden strains developing nations’ resources by reducing the available workforce and complicates even the most routine medical procedures by making it almost impossible to ensure a parasite-free blood supply for surgeries and transfusion.

The inadequate housing that frequently dots the landscapes of impoverished nations makes the task of eradicating the bugs much more difficult.

“The insects that carry the parasite invade houses, so it’s practically impossible to eliminate the disease,” Docampo explains. “The only way to do it is by improving housing, which would prevent the bugs from getting inside,” something that may not be possible in the nations where the diseases are most prevalent. Instead, Docampo is working to find new targets and tools that could eliminate the trypanosome parasites that cause both Chagas and sleeping sickness.

Most cases of Chagas disease occur in Latin America, where infected kissing bugs, also known as assassin or vampire bugs, bite people or animals and transfer the parasite into their bloodstreams. African sleeping sickness is contracted through the bite of a tsetse fly.

Working with colleagues in the university’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, Docampo discovered a specialized structure, or organelle, inside the trypanosome parasites.

Proteins within this structure proved to be responsible for the parasite’s growth and replication, making ideal targets for fighting the disease.

“These parasites are separated by millions of years of evolution from humans, and it is theoretically possible to target these organelles for chemotherapy,” Docampo says. “The idea is always to find pathways that are different in the parasite than in the host in order to find targets for vaccines, drugs or diagnostics.”

Experiments proved the organelle may be the key to successfully battling the trypanosome: Once the proteins were disabled, the parasite couldn’t reproduce or cause disease in its host.

Docampo is now looking for ways to specifically target those proteins with medications. His lab has already shown that the parasites that cause Chagas are vulnerable to specific antifungal agents, and he is continuing to search for new targets that could eliminate the threat trypanosomes pose to both humans and animals.

“These are fundamental discoveries about cellular function and life,” Docampo says. “We will continue to investigate these structures and pathways in the hope of finding new therapies to treat these diseases that affect so many people.”

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