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Innovative approach could ultimately end deadly disease of sleeping sickness

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A tag team of two bacteria, one of them genetically modified, has a good chance to reduce or even eliminate the deadly disease African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, researchers at Oregon State University conclude in a recent mathematical modeling study.

African trypanosomiasis, caused by a parasite carried by the tsetse fly, infects 30,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa each year and is almost always fatal without treatment. In a 2008 epidemic, 48,000 people died.

In this research, scientists evaluated the potential for success of a new approach to combat the disease – creating a genetically modified version of the Sodalis bacteria commonly found in the gut of the flies that carry the disease, and using different bacteria called Wolbachia to drive the GMO version of Sodalis into fly populations.

When that’s done, the GMO version of Sodalis would kill the disease-causing trypanosome parasite. According to the analysis published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, researchers say this should work – and could offer a model system for other tropical, insect-carried diseases of even greater importance, including dengue fever and malaria.

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